Republican congressman George Santos’ Brazil sojourn


Reporters follow Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) as he leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill on Jan. 25. His lies about his biography have led to multiple investigations, including from the House Ethics Committee. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

NITERÓI, Brazil — The sight of the newcomer took Gino Fonseca by surprise. As one of the city’s most prominent drag queens, Fonseca thought he knew most everyone who worked the nightclubs and LGBTQ events. But when he ascended a Pride parade float dressed in his drag persona, Katya Furacão, he saw a dazzling young drag performer he’d never before encountered.

Fonseca watched Kitara Ravache, who wore a red bejeweled dress, with wonder. The newcomer had appeared from nowhere but was already at the top of the local gay scene, dancing alongside the most established drag queens in this Rio de Janeiro suburb.

“She shone,” Fonseca recalled. “She had light.”

That August 2007 day was the zenith of Rep. George Santos’s brief and long-hidden past as a drag performer in Brazil, when the future New York Republican congressman lived a life that was often jarringly at odds with his current politics.

In the United States, as an openly gay member of a party now targeting the type of show he once performed, Santos has backed hard-line policies that many in the LGBTQ community find discriminatory. He has supported a Florida law that bars educators from discussing sexual orientation in early elementary education. He has co-sponsored a bill that separates the sexes based on “immutable biological differences.” He has criticized same-sex parents, calling them the “flavor of the decade.”

But in his mother’s native Niterói, Santos actively participated in the budding gay rights movement, according to photos and people who knew him, and performed in drag more often than he has acknowledged. He attended the city’s first Pride parades, handed out pamphlets at events, befriended some of the city’s leading activists, and climbed nightclub stages to dance and lip sync in his drag persona, Kitara Ravache, promising to one day compete himself in Miss Brasil Gay.

Santos declined to be interviewed for this report. In a response to written questions, he issued a blanket denial. “None of what you are asking is true and I would advise that you have your facts straight and proof of what you write,” he said. He added, “My political opinion has always been consistent.”

Santos, who previously denied performing in drag in Brazil, told The Washington Post that he did so only on that 2007 day, when he was 19, at the behest of family friend Manoel Antiqueira, one of the city’s most renowned drag queens. (Antiqueira disputed Santos’s account.)

Santos has rarely discussed his life in Brazil, where he spent significant time during his formative early-adult years. But a close examination of that past, including a review of court records and interviews with 25 Brazilian family members, former friends and acquaintances, helps bring into focus what amounts to the unpublished first chapter of the George Santos story.

Hints of the scandals to come — allegations of serial fabrication; a congressional ethics inquiry; U.S. federal charges of fraud, money laundering, theft and false statements — are sprinkled throughout his time in Brazil. Santos, who is due back in New York federal court in September, was known as an enigma, masked by multiple identities and apparently tall tales.

Many who remembered him said he was charming and funny, but they found it difficult to believe much of what he said. He often appeared to want others to think he was far richer, more successful, better connected than he was, they said. “A mania of grandiosity,” one relative said.

Others accused him of theft and fraud. In 2011, Rio prosecutors charged Santos with check fraud. After his election to Congress in November tipped authorities here to his whereabouts, he confessed in court to the crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to avoid prosecution.

Friends and family disagree over how long he lived here. Some say he spent much of his adolescence. Others believe it was only a few months at a time over several years. Further uncertainty surrounds how he passed his days in Brazil and if he ever held a job here.

But one element connected all the friends and family interviewed: surprise. Few could believe that the young man they knew as Anthony Devolder — an extrovert with a penchant for self-aggrandizement — had managed to talk his way into the highest echelons of American power.

“With the image that we have of the United States, I am stunned that he was able to run for office without anyone verifying anything,” said Carlos Affonso Horta de Mendonça, a cousin in Niterói. “And people say it’s Brazil that’s a corrupt mess.”

Santos’s family, like many here, is divided between the United States and Brazil. One half lives in New York; the other, Niterói. After Santos’s mother, Fátima Devolder, separated from his father, Gercino dos Santos, in the 1990s, she would bring her U.S.-born children, Tiffany and George, with her to Brazil for long stretches of time, family members and friends said.

They spent much of that time on a dead-end street off a busy avenue in the historic neighborhood of Santa Rosa, where relatives lived in a large compound of four houses behind a brown wooden gate. Life, friends and family said, was often a struggle. Fátima, who died in 2016 of cancer, worked low-paid odd jobs. She spent much of what she made on bingo halls and slot machines, according to friends and relatives. The family bounced from apartment to apartment and fell behind on rent.

Neighbor Allyson Silvério knew of the family’s hardships. He’d seen their power get cut off, he said, after Santos’s mother illegally siphoned electricity off the power grid. But Santos, he said, insisted that his family was well off. In his telling, his father — a house painter in New York, according to campaign contribution records — was a top executive in the United States. (Gercino dos Santos did not respond to requests for comment.)

Silvério, around 10 years older than Santos, believed few of the younger man’s stories but found him charming and irreverent. For two young gay men in a socially conservative country, it was a time of hope. The LGBTQ movement was celebrating massive Pride parades. New rights groups and associations were rising all over the country.

Silvério, a DJ and an early volunteer with the Niterói Diversity Group, said Santos frequently attended its gatherings. He also handed out pamphlets at other LGBTQ events. Then he began performing as Kitara Ravache. Video shows that he attended the city’s first Pride parade in 2005 in drag. He also performed, Silvério said, at a beachside kiosk where the DJ played.

Santos denied that he and Silvério were close. He called Silvério’s account “gibberish.”

To improve his technique, Silvério said, Santos sought out one of the city’s most famous drag queens. The performer, Manoel Antiqueira, whose stage name is Eula Rochard, would have Santos over to his house and see him dressed in drag at the gay club Vollúpya. He said Santos treated him well, but he found him untrustworthy. Santos claimed to have performed in clubs he hadn’t, Antiqueira said, and feuded with others.

“He told everyone he was rich,” he said. “He told me he was rich.”

Santos, in turn, called Antiqueira untrustworthy. “He always stiffed me,” Santos said.

In 2007, Antiqueira recalled, Santos returned from the United States with fine fabric and jewels to make a dress. Antiqueira was impressed. Many of the materials weren’t available in Brazil. He put Santos in touch with the dressmaker Ariane Duarte.

Duarte said Santos regaled her with stories of success and wealth. He said his father was a rich businessman in the United States. He said he was close to an actress from the soap opera “Malhação.” He seemed to care little for how much anything cost, she said, paying for lavish materials and Duarte’s services without complaint.

Santos denied having met Duarte. But a photo reviewed by The Post showed them together, alongside Antiqueira.

Duarte said she made Santos two dresses and saw him perform in one at the club Espectro. The dress was beautiful, she said: white and iridescent. Duarte watched Kitara sashay before the audience and lip sync a few numbers. When the performance was over, Duarte said, virtually no one clapped.

But Kitara didn’t react, Duarte said. The performer just kept on smiling.

Bad checks and a new identity

Questions were growing in the gay community and among family members over where Santos got his money. No one had seen him work.

One family member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personal matters, recalled his surprise when one day he saw Santos flush with cash and decked out in new, fancy clothing. “But I knew their financial situation was difficult,” the relative said. “His mother had to live rent-free with my family. We didn’t know where his money came from.”

In June 2008, according to court filings in the check fraud case, a young man walked into The Salt, a boutique in Niterói. He called himself Délio. He picked out a pair of tennis shoes and other items totaling around $1,300 and paid for them with two checks.

After Délio left the store, vendor Bruno Simões, who granted an interview to The Post, began to suspect that something was amiss. Court records show he tried the three phone numbers written on the back of the checks, but none worked. He drove to the listed address, but no one there knew Délio. The lost money, the manager told him, was coming out of his paycheck.

Within a few days, to Simões’s surprise, another young man came into the store, carrying the shoes he’d just sold to Délio. He said they’d been a gift but were too tight. Simões looked up the man, Thiago Almeida Ramalho, on the social media site Orkut. And among his friends, records show, he found Délio.

But here, Délio went by a different name: Anthony Devolder.

“Living the happiest phase of my life,” he wrote on his profile page, a screenshot in the court file shows. Santos described himself on the now-defunct site as “extravagant” and “mysterious.” “I wear clothing by famous stylists,” he said.

Simões corresponded with Santos over Orkut, according to a screenshot in the court file. “I will give you the money and I promise I won’t delay,” Santos wrote. “I know I screwed up.”

But Santos never paid. Simões contacted the police in Niterói, who questioned everyone involved over the next years.

Santos’s mother, according to her November 2010 witness statement, told police that she was a nurse to an elderly man, Délio da Câmara da Costa Alemão. Santos, according to his statement, told police on the same day that he’d “stolen” the man’s checkbook from her purse. He said he passed “a few” checks, then ripped the book up and threw it into a sewer drain.

In June 2011, the investigating detective requested Santos’s arrest.

But by then, he was back in the United States.

Allegations of theft and a vitriolic string of messages

Around the time the police were deepening their investigation, a friend of Santos’s mother sat down to her bingo game and met the future congressman. Fátima Devolder had told Adriana Parizzi she would love Anthony, and, sure enough, she did. There was such lightness and levity to him, Parizzi said. It was infectious.

At the time, Parizzi, 56, was feeling unmoored and alone. Both her parents were gone. She was preparing a move to the mountain town of Teresópolis. Her home decor business was failing. But she was financially comfortable. Her parents had left her a sizable inheritance — a windfall she said she didn’t try to hide at the bingo halls.

“I was easy prey,” she said.

Parizzi said she became close with the Devolder family. Santos visited her often in Teresópolis, for a week at a time, then two. She said he spent much of 2010 at her apartment, where they shared a platonic friendship.

Late that year, around the time police say he confessed to check fraud, Parizzi said Santos told her there was nothing for them in Brazil. They should all go to the United States. She knew it was reckless, she said, but she acquiesced. She said she purchased tickets for her daughter Bruna, Santos and herself. After arriving in New York in February 2011, Parizzi said, she paid for furniture to decorate the apartment at Roosevelt Avenue and 67th Street.

“I was bankrolling the apartment and food from my inheritance,” she said. “And money kept disappearing from my drawer.” Santos told her he wasn’t the one stealing from her.

Tiffany Devolder, Santos’s younger sister, rejected Parizzi’s account. “Adriana, someone whom we helped in every way possible and imaginable, is today out in the media telling lies and spreading hate,” she wrote in an email to The Post. She didn’t respond to requests to elaborate.

In the New York apartment, Bruna recalled moments of music, dancing and laughter. “He was like an uncle, or the father I never had,” she said.

But over the ensuing years, Adriana Parizzi said, her relationship with him became strained. She said he once threatened to “break my face.” She said he used her Brazilian tax information to buy jewelry on credit and never paid. She said he married a Brazilian woman in 2012 for $20,000 to enable her green card petition, an allegation before the Office of Congressional Ethics that three other former roommates corroborated to The Post in interviews. She said Santos offered to marry her to an American friend interested in doing business in Brazil, promising she’d be compensated with an apartment along Central Park.

“Not true,” Santos said. Parizzi, he said, continues “to make up stories that are not true and unfounded.” The congressman, a critic of illegal immigration, also denied fraudulently marrying a Brazilian woman. “This is not true,” he said. His now-former wife, who records show now lives in New Jersey, did not return requests for comment.

Parizzi said her friendship with Santos finally ruptured in the fall of 2014. She said she’d recently petitioned the United States for asylum, and while the case was pending, she and Bruna stayed with Santos and his then-partner, Pedro Vilarva. The living situation was tense. Vilarva said he was beginning to doubt Santos. “Everything was fake stories,” Vilarva told The Post.

One day, Parizzi and Vilarva accused Santos of stealing from them. “He pawned my phone,” Vilarva said. Parizzi, who soon moved with her daughter into a homeless shelter, said her jewelry had been taken. In Facebook messages with Santos she shared with The Post, she pleaded for the jewelry’s return.

“They aren’t your things,” she wrote on Feb. 7, 2015. “Why is this so complicated?”

Over the coming weeks, the messages show, he responded to her pleas with insults and accused her of sabotaging his relationship with Vilarva.

“An ingrate filled with evil,” he called her.

“A fat dump no one wants,” he called her.

“Crawl back into the hole you came from, snake,” he told her.

Parizzi, who did not report the alleged theft to police, returned to Brazil with her daughter in November 2015, penniless. She moved into a favela in Teresópolis and now subsists on public benefits. She never spoke again with Santos, whom she blames in part for her financial losses. Many others in Santos’s Brazilian life said they, too, had lost touch with him.

Allyson Silvério, his neighborhood friend, was one of the few who said he maintained intermittent contact with Santos. When the future congressman returned to Brazil, Silvério said, the two would talk over beers about the old times. “He said he worked in Manhattan,” Silvério said. “He always had some amazing job.”

In November, Silvério saw a news article about Santos’s congressional campaign and felt proud. “I’m wishing success to my friend in his endeavor!” he said on Facebook. Shortly afterward, when news of Santos’s alleged fabrications broke, he was stunned, he said. But not surprised.

“I thought, ‘That’s just Anthony being Anthony.’”

In a way, Silvério felt as if he never knew Santos. But in another way, he believed he knew exactly who Santos was.

Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report from Washington.


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