Early in 2023, The Philadelphia Citizen will be providing an important public service — job style, in-person interviews of candidates for Philadelphia mayor. This is an idea that other municipalities and voting districts should steal. It’s an idea that voters in New York’s Third Congressional District (northern Long Island and northeast Queens) would have benefited from adopting.
Without an interview process, they elected George Santos, who campaigned, according to The New York Times, “on the notion that he was the ‘full embodiment of the American dream’ and was running to safeguard it for others.” But Times reporters Grace Ashford and Michael Gold have “called into question key parts of the résumé that he sold to voters.”
The Times is being guarded. Ashord and Gold’s research reveals problems in Santos’ résumé that would have kept him off the short list for any senior position in the nation, if the interview techniques proposed by The Citizen had been employed.
This sad scenario underlines the importance of local journalism in a democracy.
During 24 years as the head of three campuses in three states, I never hired anyone for a top job without a routine background check, verifying academic diplomas and employment history. This was standard. After all, the institutions that hired me vetted my credentials.
In Santos’ case, here are some of the lies that emerged from the Times’ review of public documents and court filings from the United States and Brazil:
- In contradiction to Santos’ claim, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs have no record of his ever working there.
- In contradiction to Santos’ claim of graduating from Baruch College in 2010, Baruch has no record of anyone matching his name and date of birth graduating that year.
- Santos claimed to have established an animal rescue group, Friends of Pets United, but the IRS has no record of any registered charity with that name.
In 2010, when Santos was living in Brazil, he confessed to stealing the checkbook of a man his mother was caring for and using the checkbook for fraudulent purposes. But Santos did not respond to an official summons. Instead, he provided authorities with a false address, and disappeared.
The Times’ investigative reporters provide much additional information that would bar Santos from being hired from any responsible position.
We cannot let lies become normal in our society
Even without knowing about Santos’ misrepresentations, voters in New York’s Third Congressional District, which usually votes Democrat, might have been wary of Santos’ open ties to Trump and his Big Lie. The Times reports Santos attended a gala also attended by White Nationalists and conspiracy theorists.
I would argue that Santos’ victory is not simply the result of misinformed voters. It is associated with something dark and dangerous in American culture: admiration for the con man, especially when he gets away with it.
In the 19th century, Herman Melville wrote The Confidence Man, with a central character who sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool’s Day. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain depicts the Duke and Dauphin as charming swindlers who present themselves to Huck and Jim as royalty. In modern times we have Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, portraying a real life skilled forger who successfully disguises himself as a pilot, doctor, and many other false identities. And let’s not forget Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
People are fascinated by the flagrancy — the chutzpah — of con artists. The only thing that seems to diminish their appeal is getting caught.
That’s why it’s important for the moral health of our society that liars get caught and are forced to be accountable.
Will Santos be held accountable?
I give credit to Santos’ Democratic opponent, Robert Zimmerman, and the New York Democratic Party leadership for not arguing to overturn the November election. We’ve had enough of that. For good or ill, when the voters have spoken, they have spoken. That’s why it’s so important to be an informed voter.
But Zimmerman and New York Democrats are calling on the House Ethics Committee and the New York Attorney’s office to look into the matter. Unfortunately, with a Republican majority, there seems to be little hope that the House of Representatives will do its duty. As The Washington Post reports:
The House is responsible for determining the qualifications of its own members, and if we had a system that was genuinely built around integrity, they would refuse to seat this guy and have a special election,” said Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who helped create the Office of Compliance and the Office of Congressional Ethics. “Of course the odds of that happening are zero.’’
Voters beware — and pay attention to local journalism. The North Shore Leader, a Long Island newspaper, published pertinent information about Santos four months ago, in plenty of time to influence voters. The Leader’s article, The Leader Told You So: U.S. Rep-Elect George Santos is a Fraud — and Wanted Criminal reviews its well-documented, early reporting on Santos’ perfidy.
This sad scenario underlines the importance of local journalism in a democracy. Unfortunately, the North Shore Leader, under-resourced as so many local publications are, was drowned out by shouts and lies.
One particular threat to voters’ judgments is the fallacy of false equivalencies. It’s easy enough to fact-check any politician and find discrepancies. Sometimes these inconsistencies are the result of forgetfulness, inaccurate memories — and sometimes deliberate falsehoods. But minor deviations from the truth differ exponentially from Santos’ persistent, pathological lying and, of course, the Big Lie itself. Let’s educate ourselves to identify lies when we see them and to make sure that con men never hold public office.
Things We Can Do:
- Attend The Philadelphia Citizen’s Ultimate Job Interview to judge the candidates for mayor.
- Differentiate minor falsehoods from big lies.
- Encourage educational institutions to probe America’s fascination with con artists and grifters.
- Support local journalism.
- Be an informed voter.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
The Ultimate Job Interview is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, the Wyncote Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit www.everyvoice-everyvote.org. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.
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