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Santos' (Un)lucky Number: 199.99

Some people have a lucky number, like 2.718 or 3.1416 or 7 or 11 or 21 or 6.022 x 1023. Rep. "George Santos'" (R-NY) lucky number appears to be 199.99. Forty of his line-item campaign expenses were in amounts of exactly $199.99. Interestingly, and surely just by coincidence, FEC regulations require all candidates for federal law to preserve receipts for all campaign expenditures of $200 or more. Expenditures of $199.99 or less are legal and have to be reported but the candidate need not retain proof of the expenditure.

Politico Reporter Jessica Piper must have taken a graduate course in statistics at one point, because she felt so many expenditures at precisely the maximum value for which proof is not required was—what's the technical term here?—fishy as a truckload of tuna. So she did a bit of research on the subject. She laid hands on 4,300 FEC reports filed by candidates for the House and Senate in 2022 to see how often other candidates had line-item expenses of $199.99. Specifically, she looked for line-item expenses in the range $199.00 to $199.99 because some candidates might have rounded or truncated amounts to whole dollars and $199.95 is a plausible price for a computer monitor.

What she discovered is that 90% of the campaigns had zero expenses in the $199.00 to $199.99 range. Among the others, some had a line-item expense of $199.90 one or more times. However, she also noted that the video conferencing platform Zoom, which some candidates used, had a business plan at $199.90 per year. Candidates for federal office are a tiny part of Zoom's business so it is very unlikely that the company chose this price point to evade FEC regulations. More likely, it was chosen for normal business reasons (e.g., maximizing its profit while still being competitive).

Of the 4,300 campaigns studied, only 25 of them (0.6%) listed $199.99 at all, and none of them listed it more than four times. Santos listed it for many things, including Uber rides, Amtrak trains, and Delta Airlines flights. We did a small bit of research ourselves and discovered that all of Delta's prices are a whole number of dollars. A round-trip from New York to Miami might have cost $199.00 or $200.00 with some advance planning, but not $199.99. Amazon has plenty of items at $XX.99 but Delta doesn't play that game.

While Piper's research is not proof that Santos made up the numbers, it certainly suggests it because other campaigns rarely had items that cost $199.00 to $199.99 except for Zoom, which is clearly a legitimate campaign expense (and for which other campaigns most likely had proof, even though they didn't need it). Also suspicious is that eight of Santos' $199.99 expenses were dinners at an Italian restaurant in Queens. Did his inner circle dine there frequently and everybody ordered the same items every time? Piper didn't check out the restaurant's menu to see if there are any combinations of items that add to $199.99, but even if there aren't, Santos could argue that the food was usually in the ballpark of $170 and he calculated the tip to just hit $199.99. Harder to explain is how he got $600 hotel rooms in Miami for $199.99. There are New Yorkers who go to Florida for the winter but vote by absentee ballot in New York, so holding an event in Florida in October could be a legitimate expense.

At this point, we should probably remind everyone that submitting a false report to the FEC is a crime. In a trial, a prosecutor could bring one or more professors of statistics from Columbia University or NYU who were asked to repeat Piper's research and could testify that the probability of Santos having 40 items at $199.99 when virtually none of the other 4,300 campaigns hit that number even five times is essentially zero. In other words, the only plausible explanation is that Santos made up the numbers. Santos' lawyer could yell: "You can't prove that." But "proof" is not needed. All that is needed is for all the members of the jury to be convinced that Santos faked his reports. If in addition, a Delta official or travel agent testified that Delta's prices are always a whole number of dollars, then clearly a $199.99 ticket is false.

This issue of this "(un)lucky" number of $199.99 is important because if the local D.A. indicts Santos, part of a potential plea deal will probably include resigning from Congress immediately, as well as a fine and/or jail time. Unlike lying about his Jew-ish-ness or his education (or lack thereof), lying on an official form about campaign finances is a crime and that could be what ultimately nails the congressman. If that happens, it will be because 199.99 was actually Santos' unlucky number.

Yesterday, Kevin McCarthy said: "If for some way when we go through Ethics and he has broken the law, then we will remove him." That sentence, according to our staff linguist, is apparently in English. Who knew? In any event, the House Ethics Committee is not a law enforcement agency and is certainly in no condition to conduct a serious investigation (especially now that it has been gutted, conveniently, by McCarthy). Consequently, it is unlikely to conclude that Santos broke the law. So, McCarthy is just buying some time. If the Ethics Committee concludes that Santos lying was unethical but does not come to the conclusion that he broke the law, then McCarthy could say: "Well, he didn't break the law, so we can keep him." That doesn't solve his problem, but it kicks the can down the road until the local D.A. decides that Santos broke the law.

Oh wait. There's more. The above story is about Santos' campaign expenses. The other side of the ledger is where the money came from. Looks like a second truckload of 2-week-old tuna. In his original FEC filing, Santos said he loaned his campaign $500,000 from his personal funds. That is legal as long as it is disclosed. However, 2 days ago he filed an amended FEC report which did not check the box "personal funds of the candidate." That raises the question of where the money did come from if it wasn't his own. Did someone give him $500,000? if so that is illegal because the maximum allowed contribution is $2,900. Needless to say, this story is nowhere near the end and the D.A. and the feds are going to have a field day here with likely violations of federal law on both the input and output sides. (V)

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