A spokesman for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry is tamping down a report Monday that the congressman was facing federal prosecution in connection with illegal campaign donations provided by a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department reached a settlement with the billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, over his efforts to provide illegal "conduit" contributions going back to 2012 to political campaigns of four U.S. congressional representatives, including Fortenberry and former 2nd District Rep. Lee Terry.
Such donations from foreigners to American campaigns are illegal. Chagoury, a Paris resident, agreed in March to pay a $1.8 million fine as part of the settlement over $180,000 in contributions, of which $30,200 went to Fortenberry's 2016 campaign and $10,000 to Terry's 2014 run.
Chad Kolton, a Fortenberry spokesman, said Monday that the 1st District congressman had begun fundraising this summer for an expected legal defense prompted by an FBI investigation into the donations.
"The people involved in that scheme were prosecuted, and no charges were filed against (Fortenberry)," Kolton said. "This legal expense trust was established in part to address costs associated with that investigation."
The Arlington, Virginia-based website Axios reported Monday that Fortenberry had set up a new "Fight with Fort" fundraising page for his legal expense fund. The Facebook page stated that: "(President) Biden’s FBI is using its unlimited power to prosecute me on a bogus charge."
The fundraising page, which was set up Aug. 27, according to Axios, has since been removed from public view.
But the page, accessed via a web archive, gave a dire financial pitch from the eight-term, Republican congressman: "Unlike Swamp Creature Nancy Pelosi, I’m a principled conservative who has NEVER abused my seat in Congress to get wealthy. And right now I'm facing the Deep State's bottomless pockets."
Kolton said that Fortenberry "never saw or approved" the language used on the fundraising Facebook post. The Fortenberry camp did not respond to questions seeking more detail on who made the posts.
Over the summer, Fortenberry's campaign committee retained a new law firm, paying $25,000 to Bienert Katzman Littrell Williams LLP, a California firm specializing in white-collar criminal defense, Axios reported, citing federal election records.
Records show he also has enlisted a digital consultant who helped launch a legal expense fund for former Trump administration official Kash Patel.
Chagoury acknowledged he had paid $180,000 to individuals in the U.S. to provide donations to political candidates, and agreed to cooperate in the investigation. He reached a settlement with U.S. officials in 2019.
Justice Department documents, describing the illegal contribution strategy, said Chagoury was advised to "contribute to U.S. politicians from less-populous states because the contribution would be more noticeable to the politician and thereby would promote increased donor access to the politician."
One of the billionaire's associates, Toufic Baaklini, of Washington, D.C., admitted getting $30,000 from Chagoury and giving it to an individual in January 2016 at a Los Angeles restaurant. That individual hosted a fundraiser at which several people were recruited to donate the $30,000 to Fortenberry's campaign.
Later, Baaklini said he saw Fortenberry in Washington, D.C., according to the documents. Fortenberry asked something to the effect of: “Do you think anything was wrong with the fundraiser?” Baaklini replied by falsely stating “no” and then asked why. Fortenberry reportedly responded “because it all came from the same family.”
The documents did not say whether the campaigns or candidates who got the Chagoury money were aware that the donations originated from a foreigner.
Campaign donors were identified in the documents by initials, amounts and dates only. A check by The World-Herald, however, matched that information with $30,200 in reported contributions to the Fortenberry campaign all dated March 12, 2016, by Joumana Abboud, Antoine Alwan, Antoine Ayoub, Brigitta Ayoub, Elias Ayoub, Mirelle Ayoub, Tamara Ayoub, and Claude Fadlallah. All listed addresses in California.
Baaklini was also listed as a donor to the Fortenberry campaign, but it appears that his $5,400 donation was later withdrawn, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Elias Ayoub was among the four donors listed in federal records as giving Chagoury money to Terry in 2014. Terry lost his re-election bid that year to Democrat Brad Ashford.
Fortenberry, 60, who represents the 1st District, which includes Lincoln, next faces reelection in 2022.
World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.