Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was indicted Tuesday on three felony charges of concealing information and lying to federal authorities who were investigating illegal contributions made to his 2016 reelection campaign at a Los Angeles fundraiser.
Fortenberry is due Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to appear for his arraignment.
Fortenberry, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, is required by GOP conference rules to resign his committee assignments as a result of the indictment. The 60-year-old is charged with “one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators,” according to a Justice Department release.
The FBI interviewed Fortenberry as part of an investigation into a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, and two associates who conspired to violate federal election laws by engaging in a scheme to funnel illegal campaign contributions to U.S. candidates.
“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” Fortenberry said in a YouTube video posted Tuesday morning, hours before the indictment was announced. “They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this. We are shocked. We are stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. We thought we were trying to help, and so now we will have to fight.”
After the indictment became public, a spokesperson for Fortenberry said the congressman’s office would likely not make any further comment on Tuesday.
It is illegal for foreign nationals such as Chagoury to make campaign contributions to a federal candidate in the U.S. It is also against the law to obfuscate the real source of campaign contributions by using third-party conduits and knowingly accept such funds.
The indictment identifies Toufic Baaklini as a U.S.-based businessman who helped Chagoury with financial dealings.
In January 2016, according to the indictment, Chagoury arranged to funnel $30,000 to Fortenberry’s reelection campaign through intermediaries. Baaklini, using the money Chagoury gave him, provided that $30,000 in cash to someone identified as “Individual H” at a Los Angeles restaurant. Individual H was tasked with finding several others to contribute Chagoury’s money to Fortenberry’s campaign.
Fortenberry attended the 2016 fundraiser hosted by Individual H in which that person recruited and reimbursed people to contribute a total of $30,200 to Fortenberry's campaign. In September 2016, Individual H started cooperating with law enforcement and told them of the illegal contributions to Fortenberry.
In March 2018 and again in April of that year, Fortenberry called Individual H to ask about that person hosting another Los Angeles fundraiser. In June, that person called Fortenberry to talk about another fundraiser and informed the lawmaker several times that Baaklini gave them “$30,000 cash” to give Fortenberry at the 2016 fundraiser. Fortenberry was also told the money was distributed to others to contribute to his campaign and that the money “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause.”
Despite being aware of the illegal nature of the campaign donations, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Election Commission, nor did he attempt to return the money after the 2018 phone call, according to the indictment.
“Rather, it was not until after the FBI and USAO interviewed him in July 2019 that defendant Fortenberry disgorged the contributions,” the indictment alleges.
Chagrouy entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in 2019 and admitted he illegally funneled around $180,000 in campaign contributions to four political candidates in U.S. elections. Baaklini also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors.
The House Ethics Committee, as it has done in previous cases, will defer any action until the Department of Justice completes its prosecution.