A federal grand jury charged Nebraska’s 1st District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on Tuesday with three felonies stemming from a federal investigation of illegal contributions made to his 2016 reelection campaign.
The charges include one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.
The grand jury indictment alleges that Fortenberry, 60, of Lincoln, repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during the investigation of illegal contributions to his campaign made by a foreign billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, in early 2016.
The congressman, who has served since 2005, denies any wrongdoing.
“We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them,” Fortenberry said in a video message recorded before the indictment was released.
According to the indictment, Chagoury is a Nigerian-born billionaire of Lebanese descent who lives in Paris. He arranged for $30,000 in cash to be contributed, via other individuals, to Fortenberry's campaign during a fundraiser in Los Angeles.
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Foreign nationals are prohibited under federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections. In a news release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California said it is illegal to disguise the true source of campaign contributions by funneling money through third parties. It’s also illegal for a federal candidate to knowingly receive foreign or conduit contributions.
The indictment grew out of an FBI investigation, launched in California during the Trump administration.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Chagoury made a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in 2019 in which he admitted providing approximately $180,000 that was used to make illegal contributions to four political candidates in U.S. elections. Chagoury also agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.
Those four individuals were Fortenberry, then-Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Rep. Darrell Issa of California. All four are Republicans.
In addition, Ray LaHood, a former Republican Illinois congressman and President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary, admitted to federal prosecutors this year that he hid a $50,000 loan that came from Chagoury.
The news release said that the investigation of Fortenberry began after the host of his February 2016 fundraiser started cooperating with federal officials in September 2016.
The host, who was identified in the indictment as “Individual H,” informed special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation about the illegal contributions from Chagoury — an international philanthropist known for his close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Chagoury also has been tied to a corrupt Nigerian president and Lebanese politicians, and at one point was placed on the U.S. no-fly list over concerns that he had funneled money to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
According to the indictment, Fortenberry contacted Individual H again in the spring of 2018 about hosting another fundraising event.
The indictment alleges that, during a June 2018 phone call, Individual H told Fortenberry multiple times that an associate of Chagoury had provided him with the $30,000 in cash to route to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser.
Individual H allegedly told Fortenberry that he had distributed the money to other people at the fundraiser so the donations could be made under their names.
In addition, Individual H allegedly said that the money “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury because he was so grateful for your support (for) the cause.”
The indictment did not identify that cause. However, it named Chagoury’s associate as Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who is president and board chairman for In Defense of Christians, a group that advocates for the “protection and preservation of Christians and Christianity in the Middle East.”
Baaklini entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in connection with the illegal campaign contributions.
Based on the deferred prosecution agreement for Chagoury and Federal Election Commission records, contributions by Individual H appear to match those of Dr. Elias Ayoub, an otolaryngologist from Los Angeles. Ayoub is on the emeritus board for In Defense of Christians. He also has Nebraska ties, having gotten his medical degree and his undergraduate degree from Creighton University.
The indictment alleges that, despite the phone call, Fortenberry did not file an amended 2016 campaign report disclosing the true contributors and amounts of their donations from the fundraiser. Nor did he attempt to return or give up the illegal contributions until after his second interview with federal investigators in July 2019.
According to the indictment, Fortenberry made several false and misleading statements when interviewed by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office on March 23, 2019, and again on July 18, 2019.
Those statements allegedly included denying that he had been told about the illicit donations from the 2016 fundraiser or that Baaklini had provided the $30,000 cash. He also allegedly said that he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illegal conduit contributions.
After questions about the 2016 contributions arose, Fortenberry’s campaign said he donated the money to charity. Federal Election Commission records show that in September and October 2019, he gave a total of $30,000 to two Nebraska groups — the St. Gianna Women’s Home and the People’s City Mission.
In the video statement, which was first obtained by the Omaha World-Herald, Fortenberry said he was “stunned” and “shocked” that he was facing an indictment. The video shows the cab of a 1963 Ford pickup, with Fortenberry in the driver’s seat, his wife, Celeste, in the passenger seat and a dog between them. A field of corn is visible in the background.
“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” he said. “They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this.”
Though the congressman didn't ascribe a political motivation to the indictment, his wife did.
She said in a statement emailed to supporters early Tuesday that the expected indictment “has all the marks of being a political attack, a bogus charge manufactured to take him out.
“This accusation is entirely false. Jeff did not lie to the FBI,” she said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Fortenberry spokesperson Chad Kolton said that they just received the indictment and were reviewing it.
Through his attorney, Fortenberry has agreed to appear for an arraignment Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Each of the three charges carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.