After about two hours of deliberations, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on Thursday found Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) guilty of three felonies for lying to and concealing information from the FBI regarding illegal contributions by a foreign national to his 2016 reelection campaign, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced.
“After learning of illegal contributions to his campaign, the congressman repeatedly chose to conceal the violations of federal law to protect his job, his reputation and his close associates,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison. “The lies in this case threatened the integrity of the American electoral system and were designed to prevent investigators from learning the true source of campaign funds.”
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Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury illegally donated $30,000 through “straw donors” at a Fortenberry campaign fundraiser in California in 2016, according to the attorney’s office. One of these was a Washington, D.C., businessman named Toufic Baaklini. In 2019, after admitting to illegally paying $180,000 in total to four candidates in U.S. elections, Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine.
Elias Ayoub, the co-host of that Feb. 2016 fundraiser, later cooperated with federal authorities. In the spring of 2018, according to the indictment, he called Fortenberry and told him that the $30,000 that Baaklini gave to his campaign “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury.” Despite this, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Election Commission.
During two meetings with the FBI in March and July of 2019, Fortenberry denied knowing about the foreign money, prosecutors said. The congressman’s lawyers argued that their client was possibly distracted or had a poor phone connection. Fortenberry’s wife testified that he disliked the process of fundraising and was often on “autopilot,” according to the Associated Press. Fortenberry did not testify in his own defense.
The nine-term Nebraska representative was indicted in October. “To be accused of this is extremely painful and we are suffering greatly,” he said in a video uploaded to YouTube shortly afterward. “We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew. … Hopefully this all ends happily, for the sake of justice, for the sake of my integrity, and for the sake of the American system. This is wrong on so many levels.”
Fortenberry has a scheduled sentencing date of June 28, with each charge carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Speaking outside the courthouse on Thursday, he said he would appeal immediately.
Fortenberry is still eligible to run for reelection, and in a January video said he intends on doing just that. However, several outlets have noted it’s more likely that he resigns under the threat of expulsion from Congress. Additionally, Politico notes that key GOP lawmakers in Nebraska have shifted their support to state Sen. Mike Flood, whose entry into the race was prompted by concerns that Fortenberry’s legal troubles could doom Republican’s efforts to hold the seat. The GOP primary takes place in May.
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