George Santos pleads not guilty to fraud and theft charges as he calls case 'witch hunt'

US Republican congressman George Santos described the case against him a "witch hunt" as he pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, money laundering and theft of public funds.

The 34-year-old US politician appeared in court in New York and pleaded not guilty to the 13 charges against him, around five hours after his arrest.

Prosecutors claim he used election campaign donations to buy designer clothes, lied about being a millionaire, and collected unemployment benefits.

After leaving court proceedings, Santos said "it's a witch hunt" adding that he would clear his name and would not resign and will run for re-election.

He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Santos has been charged with seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives.

The indictment charges Santos with defrauding prospective political supporters by laundering funds to pay for his personal expenses and illegally receiving unemployment benefits while he was employed.

He is also accused of making false statements to the House of Representatives about his assets, income and liabilities.

He was released from custody on a $500,000 (£396,000) bond.

Since he was elected to Congress in November, Santos has been at the centre of a web of extraordinary revelations and accusations covering everything from his heritage to jobs he simply never held.

Federal prosecutors have been examining false statement allegations in Santos's campaign filings.

Federal prosecutor Breon Peace said the indictment "seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations".

"Taken together, the allegations in the indictment charge Santos with relying on repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself," he added.

Santos has repeatedly defied calls to resign, after details of his fictitious resume came to light. Shortly after his election victory, a New York Times investigation found a number of false claims he made on his CV about his personal and professional history.

He is accused of fabricating parts of his CV while running for Congress.

Among other claims, Santos said he had degrees from New York University and Baruch College, despite neither institution's having any record of his attending. He claimed to have worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, which also was untrue.

Click to subscribe to the Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts

Many of his fellow New York Republicans called on him to resign after his history of fabrications was revealed.

US House Majority Leader Steve Scalise has said the charges against Santos are "serious", but added, "there's a presumption of innocence".

Questions about Santos's finances also surfaced.

In regulatory filings, Santos said he had loaned his campaign and related political action committees more than $750,000 (£594,000), but it was unclear how he would have come into that kind of wealth so quickly after years in which he struggled to pay his rent and faced multiple eviction proceedings.

In a financial disclosure form, Santos had reported making $750,000 a year plus dividends from a family company, the Devolder Organisation. He later described that business as a broker for sales of luxury items including yachts and aircraft.

The business was incorporated in Florida shortly after Santos stopped working as a salesman for a company accused by federal authorities of operating an illegal Ponzi scheme.