Sold: Yacht with waterfall. Price: $19 million. Broker: George Santos.

The Neverland yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, March 7, 2023. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

A $19 million luxury yacht deal brokered by Congressman George Santos between two of his wealthy donors has drawn the attention of federal and state authorities investigating the congressman’s campaign finance and personal business dealings.

The previously unreported sale is one of about a dozen leads being pursued by the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the Nassau County district attorney’s office, people familiar with the investigation said.

Prosecutors and FBI agents have sought in recent weeks to question the 141-foot superyacht’s new owner — Raymond Tantillo, a Long Island car dealer — about the boat and his dealings with Santos, including his campaign fundraising efforts.

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Tantillo bought the boat from Mayra Ruiz, a Republican donor in Miami. Santos negotiated the payment — $12.25 million up front, with another $6.5 million in installments — and advised the two on the logistics of handing over the yacht, according to a person familiar with the sale, which took place several weeks before his election in November.

It’s unclear what laws, if any, may have been broken in the deal. Several election law experts said that if the sale was intended to inject money into Santos’ campaign, it may have violated federal law governing limits on campaign contributions. It may also be illegal for Santos to tie the commission he received on the sale to past or future donations.

But even if Santos broke no laws, the deal serves as further evidence of an emerging narrative given by people in his political orbit — that Santos appears to have used his campaign not only to win elected office but also as a networking exercise , to intrigue with wealthy donors and enrich himself from these contacts.

Santos has denied wrongdoing. Joe Murray, an attorney representing Santos in potential criminal cases, declined to comment, as did spokesmen for the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn and the Nassau County District Attorney, who is working with federal authorities on the investigation.

Santos’ campaign finance and personal business dealings have come under scrutiny following revelations by The New York Times in December that Santos had fabricated or embellished much of his resume. The Times has since reported curious gaps in his campaign filings, an unregistered fund linked to him and other irregularities in his finances.

A central mystery is the sudden, unexplained surge in Santos’ income and where he got the money to loan himself about $700,000 over the course of his 2022 campaign.

During his first run for Congress in 2020, he reported income of $55,000; two years later, he reported a salary of $750,000 and more than $1 million in dividends from his company, the Florida-based Devolder Organization, which Santos described as a “capital injection” business.

Santos, a Republican, has said publicly that his company brokered deals between high-net-worth clients. In an interview with Semafor in December, he tried to explain his work, saying that if a client wanted to sell a plane or a boat, he would “put that tentacle out there” among his contacts, adding that he had landed several million-dollar contracts.

“If you’re looking for a $20 million yacht,” he told Semafor, “my referral fee could be somewhere between $200,000 and $400,000.”

As it turns out, there was actually a yacht worth close to $20 million.

In 2019, records show that John H. Ruiz, a Miami lawyer and businessman, purchased a superyacht made by Italian yacht builder Mangusta. The yacht, which at the time was listed at 18 million euros or $20 million, accommodated 12 guests and seven crew and featured an infinity pool, waterfall and outdoor shower. It was called Namaste, a greeting in Hindi.

Ruiz, a Coral Gables attorney who specializes in health care and malpractice claims, gained notoriety last year when he took his data analytics company public through a reverse merger with a special-purpose acquisition company. The company, MSP Recovery, briefly had a record valuation of nearly $33 billion, making Ruiz a multi-billionaire.

But the stock immediately fell to a dollar a share, and in June 2022 he and the firm’s co-founder loaned the company $113 million to cover a cash shortfall.

Ruiz did not donate to Santos’ campaign, but his wife, Mayra, was a particularly generous supporter. Campaign finance records show that on March 31, 2022, Mayra Ruiz gave $10,800 to the Santos Joint Fundraising Committee. She was later among the first to give money to Santos after he won the election.

Santos has not been able to reveal any of his clients from Devolder. But in December, Tantillo Auto Group — Tantillo’s chain of Long Island auto dealerships — and two entities related to Ruiz’s family were identified by The Daily Beast as clients of Devolder. The Daily Beast quoted Myra Ruiz as saying the family hired Devolder in early 2022, but gave no further details.

Mayra Ruiz did not respond to requests for comment. Christine Lugo, an attorney for John Ruiz, said her client “is not interested in a statement other than the fact that he has already disclosed publicly that he does not know who George Santos is and has never participated in his campaigns and has never made any work with him.

Santos, by many accounts, mixed campaign fundraising with personal business opportunities. Several donors described meetings with Santos during fundraising in which he would describe deals he could make with other donors in industries including insurance and pharmaceuticals, or tell them about donors looking to sell businesses or luxury items .

Santos would offer to bring people together with the implicit understanding that he would take a share, they said. The proposals were often coupled with requests for donations. None of the other potential agreements outlined to the Times appear to have resulted in deals.

Among the donors he courted, Santos appears to have grown close to Tantillo, according to people familiar with their relationship.

Tantillo gave more than $17,000 to the Santos campaign and related committees; his estranged wife is recorded as giving at least $5,000 more, as is another ex-wife. (Contribution limits in New York’s 2022 congressional races were slightly changed after a state court ruling sank an electoral map and forced an August primary; the Federal Election Commission ruled that candidates could raise additional funds.)

In August, Santos approached Tantillo with an offer to sell him the yacht. The agreement was reached in late September in Coral Gables, and Santos proposed moving the boat to a free trade zone at the port, the person said.

It’s common for boats to be sold in a free trade zone before they go overseas — often the Bahamas — and return with a new owner, according to another person familiar with the sale and the Miami port system.

As negotiations progressed, Santos pressed Tantillo for additional donations and financial assistance to his campaign and to other Republicans as Election Day neared, the person said. Tantillo did not provide additional funds.

“I have every reason to believe that Tantillo will not be charged for anything, including the purchase of a boat or campaign contributions,” said Robert Curtis Gottlieb, Tantillo’s attorney.

At least one other major donor was asked for a large contribution weeks before the election, the Times reported.

After weeks of negotiations, Tantillo agreed in September 2022 to buy the yacht, according to a person familiar with the sale. The deal was brokered by Santos with Ruiz, according to emails described to the Times.

On November 3, 2022, Namaste departed for the Bahamas from her berth in West Palm Beach, Florida. Fifteen days later, according to port records, the boat returned to Florida under a new flag – the Cayman Islands – a different name and a new owner.

Tantillo crosses the Neverland boat.

© 2023 The New York Times Company

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