- The Handbasket
- EXCLUSIVE: Santos friend & top donor speaks for first time since George's lies revealed
EXCLUSIVE: Santos friend & top donor speaks for first time since George's lies revealed
“He never made any claims to me that he was Jewish," Jennifer Vartanov says.
George Santos stands outside an abandoned Hampton Inn on Long Island’s Jericho Turnpike as protesters raise signs with phrases like “NO ILLEGAL SHELTER” and “WE WANT TRANSPARENCY” above their heads. It’s summer 2020 during the height of the pandemic, and members of a group called Concerned Jericho Parents have assembled: Santos, with a campaign-branded mask slung down below his mouth, explains the protest as a camera follows him on the shoulder of the six-lane thoroughfare. They’re protesting a company’s plan to use the vacant space for transitional housing for families looking to get back on their feet—or as Santos and the protesters insist, a dangerous, seedy homeless shelter.
“Are we going to jeopardize the school districts for the children and the people who pay all the high taxes to have the quality of life? Is this what we’re about? Are we going to be anti-American and destroy the future of our children?” Santos asks no one in particular.
It might seem strange, Santos choosing this fight in Jericho, NY as one of his first public political crusades. At the time, he was just a guy from Queens with no personal connection to the town, other than running to represent it in Congress. But it becomes a bit clearer when you learn the fight was spearheaded by Jennifer Vartanov, a local businesswoman and mother of three who would become one of Santos’ close pals and top financial donors.
After Vartanov’s successful battle to stop the shelter, she was elected to the Jericho School Board. She’d appear in a campaign video for her dear friend George’s winning congressional campaign, and at a gala in December he’d post a photo with her and her husband and the caption, “Two of the people god blessed me with in 2020. Thank you for your friendship and support Mr. & Mrs. Vartanov!”
Then 12 days later, it all fell apart.
I’ve spent the last month or so trying to reach Jennifer Vartanov, with multiple emails and calls unanswered. But after speaking to her fellow Jericho Board of Education member Sam Perlman last week, I suddenly received a call from Vartanov exactly 30 minutes after Perlman and I hung up.
“George was never involved with Concerned [Jericho] Parents,” she told me. “I'm not really sure what you're referring to.” I then told her about the video of him outside the old Hampton Inn. “Okay, that is something he must have done on his own. It had nothing to do with me or Concerned [Jericho] Parents at the time that I was ever there.”
She then quickly added “Yeah, I mean he filmed a video in support of [Concerned Jericho Parents] and publicizing and talking to people who are out there as a part of it. So that is just how it appears. He's running for Congress at the time, and I'm sure he used any and all local, I guess, concerns or events that were going to help him at the time for his campaign. That's nothing really to do with me or the group at that time.”
But an Instagram post from the time shared by a Jericho Board of Education candidate named John Sarraf tells a different story. A photo shared by Sarraf shows Santos posing with him and Vartanov in front of the former Hampton Inn, and celebrating the demise of the transitional housing project. (Side note: Sarraf was backed in his run by the 1776 Project, a right wing PAC for getting more conservatives elected to local school boards that had Nancy Marks as its treasurer. They were also one of the top clients of Marks’ business, Campaigns Unlimited.)
Additionally, an email shared with me that was sent out to Concerned Jericho Parents’ listserv on November 2, 2020—the day before Election Day—indicates Santos had a direct connection to the group’s successful efforts.
The subject reads “Go Out and VOTE!” and after an introduction about the importance of the election, says: “When we set out on this venture [against the homeless shelter], we tried to navigate through many layers of government to get answers and transparency. We quickly learned who was on our side and who did not care. Remember this when you cast your ballot…for this election please don’t forget George Santos who also supported our group, not Tom Suozzi.”
The email also names several other local politicians to support, and though the word Republican isn’t used, every person listed belongs to the party.
Another video shared by the Santos campaign on September 25, 2020, shows the candidate standing outside of a local government building just three days after Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Arthur Diamond issued a temporary injunction against the building of the shelter. Vartanov is perched next to him while he delivers brief remarks.
“This issue was brought up to me not too long ago by a concerned citizen,” he tells the crowd. “I met Jennifer not too long ago at a local meeting.” By the end of 2022, Vartanov and her husband would donate a combined $23,000 to the Santos campaign, per FEC records.
Vartanov and her husband Levan (known as Leo) founded what a local publication referred to as “a credit card processing empire” and reside in a sprawling mansion in Old Westbury, a wealthy town in the Jericho school district. There’s no public evidence of Vartanov being politically active prior to forming her group Concerned Jericho Parents in 2020, and FEC records show she didn’t make her first meaningful political donation until December 31, 2021: A whopping $10,000 to Devolder-Santos for Congress.
And perhaps even more curious than the size of the donation—which exceeds the federal maximum individual contribution—is the fact that the address attached to this specific contribution is not her Old Westbury home, or even her Queens, NY office. No, it’s 47 Flintlock Drive in Shirley, NY: A residence about 45 minutes down the Long Island Expressway belonging to former Santos campaign treasurer Nancy Marks. Vartanov said she can’t explain the discrepancy. “I have no idea why my address was not used, if anything.”
In addition to the 10k, Vartanov made two other donations on the last day of 2021: one for $1,300 and another for $2,900. (Those were registered to her home address.) Her husband Leo made two separate donations of $2,900 that same day. In 2022, Vartanov made four separate donations of $500—three of which were made the same day in October—and Leo made one for $1,000 in June.
When I asked Vartanov if she considered Santos a friend, she replied “Yes.” But as for his infamous lie about being Jewish, Vartanov—who is Jewish—says Santos never mentioned it to her. “He never made any claims to me that he was Jewish, so that was all news to me when the story broke, you know, a few months ago. I personally never heard those words from his mouth. That was never a discussion.”
I asked her how she felt as a Jewish woman about Santos’ false claims that his grandparents survived the Holocaust. “I mean, it was probably the same reaction as everyone else. Kind of like, your mouth dropped,” she said. “But once again, I never heard that from his mouth, so I didn't want to pass judgment on him because of some story. A lot of things can get printed, but that doesn't mean everything is true.”
When I push back by pointing out there are multiple recordings of him making these claims, she admitted it was “concerning.”
As for the current state of their relationship, Vartanov said she hasn’t spoken to her friend since the New York Times bombshell dropped in late December. “I don't really see a need to speak to him and to continue any kind of conversation or relationship—whatever relationship it was,” she told me. “I think it's best that I keep my distance from him because he definitely made many claims that made me feel very uncomfortable, and I just prefer not to speak to him at this point.”
On December 7, Vartanov and her husband attended the New York Young Republicans Club gala as Santos’ special guests. While the likes of Steve Bannon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Donald Trump Jr. hobnobbed nearby, Jennifer and George posed for a photo. “At this weekends gala with my good friend @santos4_congress who is now our District #3 Congressman,” the caption of Vartanov’s now-deleted post read. Champagne clinking emoji. Champagne clinking emoji. Champagne clinking emoji.