LOS ANGELES (AP) — U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was convicted Thursday of charges that he lied to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 contribution to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser.
A federal jury in California found the nine-term Republican guilty of one count of falsifying and concealing material facts and two counts of making false statements. Fortenberry was charged after sitting for two interviews with FBI agents who were investigating the donor, Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.
Fortenberry argued at trial that prosecutors knew that the congressman didn’t know about the contribution, but directed an informant to feed him the information in a 10-minute call with the intention of trying to prosecute him.
His attorneys said FBI agents then used false pretenses to interview Fortenberry nearly a year later and indicted him when he failed to recall all of the details from the conversation.
Each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence and fines.
The trial could all but end the political career of a congressman seen as a reliable conservative who coasted to easy wins but isn’t a familiar name outside of Nebraska. Felons are eligible to run for and serve in Congress, but the vast majority choose to resign under threat of expulsion.
Fortenberry, who is running for reelection, took a big political hit when prosecutors announced the charges, and his indictment already divided Nebraska Republicans who backed him for years.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
A Nebraska congressman lied to the FBI to protect his sterling reputation after accepting an illegal $30,000 campaign donation from a Nigerian-born billionaire, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry had universally been praised for his honesty, integrity and devotion to family and put that all at risk, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said.
“It’s an all too familiar and simple story of a politician caught up in a system, caught up in a cycle of power and money who lost his way,” Jenkins said. “You build up that much of a reputation, you have a lot to lose. That’s not a justification for lying; that’s a motive for lying.”
Fortenberry, 61, a nine-term Republican congressman facing reelection, has pleaded not guilty to charges he deliberately misled FBI agents and prosecutors who were investigating the 2016 donations. It is illegal for U.S. politicians to accept foreign funds.
Jurors began deliberating to determine if Fortenberry lied about what he knew about the illicit donation during an interview at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and a follow-up meeting four months later in Washington about the contribution received at a Los Angeles fundraiser.
Defense lawyers said the FBI “set up” Fortenberry after a national investigation fizzled into foreign money funneled to members of Congress. They said Fortenberry’s flaw was voluntarily meeting with agents and prosecutors to help their probe and having a faulty memory.
Celeste Fortenberry, the lawmaker’s wife, was the final witness in the case and testified that her husband didn’t remember the day they met. She said he loathed making fundraising calls and was often on “autopilot” when he conducted them.
Lawyers on both sides of the trial focused their closing arguments on one such call with Dr. Elias Ayoub, who held the fundraiser for Fortenberry at his Los Angeles home in 2016.
Ayoub, who was cooperating with the FBI, told Fortenberry during the call recorded in June 2018 that he distributed $30,000 to friends and relatives who attended the fundraiser so they could write checks to Fortenberry’s campaign.
The doctor said the money had been provided by an associate of theirs and probably came from Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire who lives in Paris. Chagoury admitted in 2019 to funneling $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.
The three men in the alleged scheme to funnel the money to Fortenberry were all of Lebanese descent and had ties to In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit Fortenberry supported that was devoted to fighting religious persecution in the Middle East.
Fortenberry asked Ayoub on the phone call to organize another fundraiser with supporters of their cause.
In 2019, Fortenberry denied to FBI agents that he received any funds from a foreign national or through so-called conduit contributions, where the money was distributed to straw donors.
Fortenberry, who was unaware agents had recorded his call with Ayoub, said it would be “horrifying” if the doctor had made such a claim about the source of the funds.
Defense attorney John Littrell said the recording of the call only depicted what was heard on Ayoub’s end and not what Fortenberry, who had poor cellphone reception, heard.
If Fortenberry had not heard as few as three crucial words, he may have missed what Ayoub was trying to tell him about where the money came from, Littrell said. The fact that Fortenberry didn’t remember the call more than a year later was understandable, he said.
“This is a memory test every one of us would fail,” Littrell said.
The government misled Fortenberry about the purpose of visiting his home, telling him it was a national security issue, essentially ambushing him and his family, Littrell said. Prosecutors then packaged up statements to make them look more incriminating, using things Fortenberry both said and omitted to make them more damning, he said.
Littrell said the $36,000 his client raised in Los Angeles — most of it illegally — was a drop in the bucket for a congressman in an uncompetitive district with a healthy war chest.
“Do you think he would put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had $1.5 million?” Littrell said. “That’s not possible.”