Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) was indicted on Tuesday, accused of concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities who were investigating illegal contributions to his 2016 campaign, the Justice Department announced.
A federal grand jury indicted Fortenberry, who has served in Congress since 2005, on one count of “scheming to falsify and conceal material facts” and two counts of “making false statements to federal investigators looking into illegal contributions.”
If found guilty, the three felony charges carry a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
The indictment alleges that the 60-year-old Republican repeatedly lied to federal agents and misled them during an investigation into illegal contributions made to his re-election campaign by a foreign billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury.
Under federal law, a foreign national is prohibited from contributing to any U.S. elections.
According to the indictment, Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Chagoury arranged for $30,000 of his money to be contributed through other individuals to Fortenberry’s campaign during a fundraiser held in Los Angeles, which is also illegal under federal law.
Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2019 and the billionaire admitted to providing approximately $180,000 in illegal contributions to four different political candidates in U.S. elections between June 2012 and March 2016. He also agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.
Meanwhile, the co-host of Fortenberry’s 2016 fundraiser in LA—referred to in the indictment as “Individual H”— also began cooperating with federal authorities in September 2016. Individual H told special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation about the illegal contributions, the indictment states.
Investigators thus began to look into potential illegal contributions to Fortenberry’s campaign, and whether he knew about them at the fundraiser in question as well as whether or not he knew specifically of the illegal contribution from billionaire Chagoury.
Federal agents also looked into whether or not Fortenberry had any direct or indirect communications with Chagoury in relation to the contributions.
Despite “Individual H” repeatedly telling the congressman that Chagoury associate Toufic Joseph Baaklini had provided $30,000 in cash to route to Fortenberry for the 2016 fundraiser through numerous individuals so as to avoid individual donor limits and that it “probably did came from Chagoury,” Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Election Commission.
Instead, the indictment alleges Fortenberry “knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device material facts.”
Baaklini also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors.
The indictment says Fortenberry allegedly made false and misleading statements regarding the illegal contributions during a March 23, 2019, interview with investigators. He also allegedly told investigators that he was not aware of Baaklini ever being involved in illegal campaign contributions, nor was he aware of any contributions to his campaign from a foreign national.
In second interview with federal investigators and prosecutors on July 18, 2019, Fortenberry allegedly made more false statements, including denying that he was aware of any illegal donations made at the 2016 fundraiser and denying that Individual H had told him Baaklini had provided the $30,000 cash at the 2016 fundraiser.
He allegedly told officers that he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illegal conduit contributions, according to the indictment.
At that same interview, the Congressman told investigators that he had ended the June 2018 call with Individual H after they made a “concerning comment,” but had in actual fact continued to ask Individual H to host another fundraiser for his campaign, the indictment states.
‘We Will Fight These Charges’
Fortenberry has denied any wrongdoing. In a video posted to Youtube on Oct. 19, titled, “I wanted you to hear from me first,” the congressman said he feels “personally betrayed” by the charges and allegations, and reiterated that he was unaware of the illegal donations.
“We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them,” Fortenberry said in the video filmed from his car alongside his wife Celeste Fortenberry. “This is wrong on so many levels.”
“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,” Trump said in his statement.
“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,” Trump added.