By Timothy Bella
Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), under fire for a series of lies about his past, is accused of pocketing $3 000 from a GoFundMe page he set up for a homeless veteran to help pay for surgery for the man’s dying service dog.
US Navy veteran Richard Osthoff recounted to Patch that he was living in a tent on the side of US Route 9 in New Jersey when his beloved service dog, Sapphire, developed a life-threatening stomach tumor in 2016.
After he realised he could not afford the thousands of dollars needed for surgery on the pit bull mix, a veterinarian tech recommended Osthoff get in touch with a man named Anthony Devolder, who ran a pet charity that could help his dog.
Anthony Devolder was one of the aliases used by Santos before he got into politics – and long before he lied about much of his biography to win a seat in the House. The pet charity Osthoff was referred to was Friends of Pets United. Neither the IRS nor the attorney general’s offices in New York and New Jersey found any record of a registered charity by that name, the New York Times reported.
After Santos helped Osthoff raise $3 000 through GoFundMe for Sapphire in the summer of 2016, the veteran said, he tried to get hold of the organiser to collect the money. But instead of a happy ending, Osthoff told Patch, Santos closed and deleted the fundraising page and became more difficult to reach before he stopped responding altogether. “He stopped answering my texts and calls,” the veteran told the outlet.
Osthoff, now 47, said that he never saw any of the money from the online fundraiser set up by Santos. Sapphire died in January 2017.
“Little girl never left my side in 10 years,” Osthoff said, adding that he had to panhandle to help pay for Sapphire’s end-of-life care.
Santos has denied the allegations, telling the news site Semafor in a text message that the story is “fake.” “No clue who this is,” he wrote to the outlet.
But Jalen Drummond, a spokesman for GoFundMe, confirmed to The Washington Post on Wednesday that the fundraiser was indeed real and linked to Santos.
“When we received a report of an issue with this fundraiser in late 2016, our trust and safety team sought proof of the delivery of funds from the organiser,” Drummond said in a statement. “The organiser failed to respond, which led to the fundraiser being removed and the email associated with that account prohibited from further use on our platform.”
He added, “GoFundMe has a zero-tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.”
An official with Santos’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday to address the statement from GoFundMe. It’s unclear whether the case was investigated by law enforcement.
The allegations are the latest in a series facing Santos, who has admitted to lying about his résumé but has rebuffed calls from Democrats and Republicans alike to resign. Santos has faced questions on a variety of topics, from saying that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, “claimed my mother’s life” – she died in 2016 – to claiming the cousin of a Russian oligarch as a client. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) has also called for the Federal Election Commission to investigate Santos’s campaign finances.
Santos, who flipped a seat on Long Island in the midterms and helped give Republicans a narrow majority in the House, is expected to be seated on the House Small Business and Science, Space and Technology committees.
Osthoff, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2002. In 2016, he found himself living in an abandoned chicken coop on the side of a highway in Howell,. He said his only saving grace was Sapphire, who was given to him by a veterans group. Osthoff often posted pictures of Sapphire to Facebook, capturing the dog’s big smile and what he described as “the adoring look I’d get when I’d talk to her or enter the room.”
But the stomach tumour was getting worse and Osthoff needed a miracle. Michael Boll, founder of New Jersey Veterans Network, mentored Osthoff and tried to help him figure out ways to assist Sapphire. Osthoff and Boll thought they found a miracle in Santos, who quickly put together the online fundraiser in 2016 titled, “Click here to support sapphire The Veteran rescue! by Anthony Devolder.”
“Sapphire is a 10-year-old red nose pit bull that has been keeping this man company, she dose [sic] not deserve to die because of this tumor, she deserves to be treated and cared for,” reads a Facebook post from the account of George Devolder, another of Santos’s aliases. “Will you help this baby and her daddy stay together for a few more years? Does he not deserve to have her? Let’s all come together to help this family of two stay healthy!”
It didn’t take long for the fundraiser to surpass the $3 000 needed for Sapphire’s surgery.
“We made the goal, and then some,” Osthoff wrote on Facebook in late June 2016.
Osthoff and Sapphire headed to a veterinary practice in Queens in August 2016 that was recommended by Santos, the veteran recalled. Osthoff said Santos told him he had “credit” with the practice since he regularly used it for his own charity. The veterinarian there told Osthoff that Sapphire’s tumor was inoperable.
From there, Osthoff told Patch, Santos became more and more elusive. The situation escalated in November 2016, when Santos allegedly told Osthoff that since the veteran “didn’t do things my way,” Santos transferred the funds for Sapphire’s surgery toward his charity so that it could be used “for other dogs.” When Osthoff demanded that he be allowed to take Sapphire to another veterinarian since she was “going to die because of God knows what,” Santos replied, “Remember it is our credibility that got GoFundMe… to contribute.”
“We are audited like every 501c3 and we are with the highest standards of integrity,” Santos said, according to screenshots of text messages obtained by Patch. “Sapphire is not a candidate for this surgery the funds are moved to the next animal in need and we will make sure we use of resources [sic] to keep her comfortable!”
Boll recalled to the outlet how his efforts to mediate were unsuccessful.
“I contacted [Santos] and told him ‘You’re messing with a veteran,’ and that he needed to give back the money or use it to get Osthoff another dog,” he said. “He was totally uncooperative on the phone.”
Osthoff was upset when he shared to Facebook in November 2016 that he never received any of the money raised for his pit bull mix.
“I’m sorry to say that we were scammed by Anthony Devolder,” Osthoff wrote. “Through a series of bad veterinary contacts, and subterfuge regarding payment, Sapphire has NOT received veterinary care, and her growth is three to four times bigger than it was when the campaign was fulfilled. She facing euthanasia within months.”
This isn’t the first time that someone has accused Santos of scamming them under the guise of pet charity work. A woman told the Times last month that even though she was supposed to be the beneficiary of a 2017 fundraising event that saw Santos charge $50 per person, she never received any of the funds. She said Santos offered a series of excuses as to why she never got any of the funding.
The latest allegations involving Santos prompted a fresh round of backlash from pundits, including former Republican congressman Joe Walsh of Illinois.
“If that story is true, George Santos shouldn’t be on any committee,” he said Wednesday on MSNBC. “That should be the last straw, if there’s a last straw.”
Seeing Santos’s rise to Congress, and that he admitted to fabricating large parts of his biography, has been a painful reminder for Osthoff. Boll told Patch that when he first heard about the man they knew as Anthony Devolder, he thought, “this is going to kill [Osthoff].”
Osthoff said Sapphire saved his life when he considered suicide on two occasions. His Facebook page is still full of photos of the friend he lost six years ago.
“I loved that dog so much,” he said, “I inhaled her last breaths when I had her euthanised.”
The Washington Post