GOP congressman charged with lying to FBI about illegal campaign donations

Fortenberry denies allegations in YouTube video

John Bowden,Andrew Feinberg
Wednesday 20 October 2021 15:48
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Jeff Fortenberry denies lying to FBI about illegal campaign donations

Nebraska Rep Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican, is facing three federal indictments from the US Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.

A federal grand jury indicted Republican Rep Jeff Fortenberry on Tuesday with scheming to falsify and conceal information and two counts of making false statements about campaign contributions for his 2016 campaign.

Former President Donald Trump issued a bizarre statement that attacked a slew of his various political enemies from the past, including former FBI Director James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and others more obscure.

He called the news that Mr Fortenberry was facing repercussions “terrible”, explaining that “nothing happens” to his own various enemies for their supposed misdeeds.

“Isn’t it terrible that a Republican Congressman from Nebraska just got indicted for possibly telling some lies to investigators about campaign contributions, when half of the United States Congress lied about made up scams, and when Mark Zuckerberg, in my opinion a criminal, is allowed to spend $500 million and therefore able to change the course of a Presidential Election, and nothing happens to them,” it read in part.

According to court documents, Mr Fortenberry — an eight-term congressman from Nebraska — allegedly lied to federal investigators who were looking into whether a Nigerian-born Lebanese national, Gilbert Chagoury, donated $30,000 to Mr Fortenberry’s 2016 re-election campaign through an American intermediary, businessman Toufic Baaklini.

Because US law forbids foreign nationals from donating to political campaigns, foreign donors looking to influence US elections often seek out such intermediaries — known as “straw donors” — who can contribute to campaigns in their own names and thereby conceal the funds true source.

According to the indictment obtained by The Independent, a fundraiser for Mr Fortenberry’s campaign — who later began cooperating with federal investigators — told the congressman that a $30,000 donation to his campaign that had supposedly been made by Mr Baaklini was in fact from Mr Chagoury, a foreign national who was prohibited from donating.

The indictment alleges that Mr Fortenberry and his campaign failed to dispose of the contribution and did not update campaign’s Federal Election Commission reports to reflect the illegal contribution until after he had been interviewed about them by FBI agents. He also allegedly lied to federal investigators who asked him about the source of the $30,000 donation during a March 2019 interview at his Lincoln, Nebraska home, and allegedly did so again during further interviews at his attorney’s Washington, DC office, even after being advised that it was a crime to lie to federal investigators.

“From on or about June 4, 2018, to in or about July 18, 2019, affecting the Federal Investigation in the Central District of California, and within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the government of the United States, namely, the FBI, IRS, and USAO, defendant JEFFREY FORTENBERRY knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device material facts,” grand jurors wrote in the indictment, which also alleges that Mr Fortenberry “knowingly and willfully made materially false statements and representations to the FBI and IRS, knowing that these statements and representations were untrue”.

Grand jurors also wrote that Mr Fortenberry falsely said he was not aware of Mr Baaklini making illegal contributions and lied when he said all of the contributions and all of the individuals who contributed to his fundraiser in 2016 were publicly disclosed.

“In fact, as defendant FORTENBERRY then knew, his campaign had never disclosed the names of individuals who were the true sources of the conduit contributions at the 2016 Fundraiser,” the indictment reads.

Mr Fortenberry denied the allegations in a video message released hours before the indictment dropped, claiming in a YouTube video: “We’re shocked and stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. We thought we were trying to help. And now we will have to fight.”

“We will fight these charges,” the congressman added. “I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew.”

In the video, Mr Fortenberry acknowledges that the contributions funneled to his campaign by a Nigerian businessman were illegal, but claims that he “didn’t know anything about this” at the time, adding that the perpetrators were “caught and punished, thankfully”.

Bound by House Republican Caucus rules, the Nebraska Republican will temporarily lose his seat on the House Appropriations Committee; he could also potentially face actions from the House Ethics Committee.

Eric Garcia contributed reporting.

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