U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry, 61, who served in Congress since 2005 and represented Nebraska's 1st Congressional District, was found guilty by a federal jury of concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities who were investigating illegal contributions made by a foreign national to the congressman's 2016 re-election campaign. The jury found him guilty of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.
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. Fortenberry lied to and misled authorities during two interviews with federal authorities who were looking into illegal contributions to Fortenberry's re-election campaign made by a foreign billionaire in early 2016. Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, donated $30,000 of his money through “straw donors” who attended a Fortenberry campaign fundraiser held in Los Angeles.
Foreign nationals cannot legally make contributions to a federal campaign. It also is illegal for the true source of campaign contributions to be disguised by funneling the money through third-party conduits.
Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States Attorney's Office in 2019 in which he admitted providing approximately $180,000 that was used to make illegal contributions to four different political candidates in U.S. elections. Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine.
The co-host of the Fortenberry 2016 fundraiser, who is referred to in court papers as “Individual H,” began cooperating with federal authorities in September 2016 and informed special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation about the illegal contributions. In response, investigators began looking into whether the Fortenberry campaign received illegal conduit contributions, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal contributions – both foreign contributions and conduit contributions – at the 2016 fundraiser, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal foreign contributions from Chagoury, and whether Fortenberry had any communications with Chagoury in relation to the illegal contributions made at the 2016 fundraiser.
In the spring of 2018, Fortenberry contacted Individual H about hosting another fundraiser. In a June 2018 call, Individual H told the congressman on multiple occasions that a close associate of Chagoury and political ally of Fortenberry – Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors – had provided him with $30,000 cash to route to Fortenberry's campaign at the 2016 fundraiser. Individual H told Fortenberry that the money – which was distributed to other individuals at the fundraiser so the donations could be made under their names and avoid individual donor limits – “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury.”
Despite learning of the illegal campaign contributions, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission.
Instead, after learning this information, Fortenberry made false and misleading statements during a March 23, 2019, interview with investigators who specifically told him it was a crime to lie to the federal government. Fortenberry falsely told investigators that he was not aware of Baaklini ever being involved in illegal campaign contributions, that the individuals who made contributions at the 2016 fundraiser were all publicly disclosed, and that he was not aware of any contributions to his campaign from a foreign national.
At a second interview on July 18, 2019, with federal investigators and prosecutors, Fortenberry made additional false statements, including denying he was aware of any illicit donations made during the 2016 fundraiser, denying that Individual H had told him Baaklini had provided the $30,000 cash at the 2016 fundraiser, and stating that he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illegal conduit contributions.
During this second interview, Fortenberry also misleadingly stated he ended the June 2018 call with Individual H after that person made a “concerning comment,” when in fact Fortenberry continued to ask Individual H to host another fundraiser for his campaign, according to court documents.