Thursday, March 24, 2022

Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry found guilty of lying to the FBI. (WaPo)

Despite the United Supreme Court's erroneous assumption about the corrupting power of money in politics in its Citizens United case, foreign dirty money is contaminating our politics. 

On March 24, 2022, a federal court jury in Los Angeles convicted nine-term Nebraska Republican U.S. Rep. Jeffrey Fortenberry of lying to the FBI about foreign campaign contributions from a foreign billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury of Nigeria. 

From Washington Post: 

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) speaks on Capitol Hill in 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

A federal jury on Thursday convicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) on three felony counts for lying to federal investigators about illegal campaign contributions from a foreign billionaire.

The charges stem from a 2016 fundraiser held in Glendale, Calif., for the congressman’s reelection. There, Fortenberry received donations totaling $30,200 from Gilbert Chagoury, a wealthy Nigerian business executive of Lebanese descent who used other people as conduits to make the contributions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced in October.

Foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to candidates running for federal office in the United States. It is also illegal to disguise a donor’s identity through third-party contributions.

The week-long trial in Los Angeles concluded with a guilty verdict that was announced after two hours of deliberations, the Associated Press reported. But walking stoically and seemingly unflustered, Fortenberry addressed reporters outside the courtroom, with his wife, two of his daughters and his future son-in-law standing beside him.

Fortenberry — who has maintained his innocence since being charged in October — said he planned to appeal the verdict. His defense team argued that authorities had used deceptive investigative tactics to indict the congressman.

“We always felt like it was going to be hard to have a fair process here,” Fortenberry told reporters Thursday. “So this appeal starts immediately.”

Fortenberry’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Thursday night.

Fortenberry was convicted of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal inve

Fortenberry was convicted of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Each of the counts carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.

“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,” U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement on Thursday. “The lies in this case threatened the integrity of the American electoral system and were designed to prevent investigators from learning the true source of campaign funds.”

Chagoury made an agreement with federal prosecutors in 2019 and paid a $1.8 million fine.

The billionaire was accused of making illegal contributions totaling $180,000 to four U.S. political candidates. The money was funneled through two associates, court records show. One of them, Toufic Joseph Baaklini, gave $30,000 of Chagoury’s cash to “an individual at a restaurant in Los Angeles who, along with others, later made campaign contributions” to Fortenberry’s reelection bid, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

Baaklini paid a $90,000 fine and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

According to court documents, Chagoury and his associates had ties to a nonprofit that fought against the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. Federal prosecutors said the trio sought to funnel money to “politicians from less-populous states because the contribution would be more noticeable to the politician and thereby would promote increased donor access.”

Fortenberry, who supported the group’s mission to combat the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, maintains he knew nothing of the illegal campaign donations.

An unnamed person who hosted the fundraiser for Fortenberry began cooperating with law enforcement in September 2016. About two years later, the individual told the congressman during a phone call that the funds “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury,” the indictment states.

But Fortenberry, who did not know the call was being recorded, did not file an amended Federal Election Commission report, according to court records. Instead, investigators said, he asked the individual to host another fundraiser for him.

Twice in 2019, investigators interviewed the congressman about the contributions while secretly filming him — the recordings of which, according to reports by multiple outlets, were played during the trial. According to the indictment, Fortenberry “knowingly and willfully made materially false statements and representations to the FBI and IRS” about the illegal donations.

Yet the congressman has repeatedly painted a different story.

Ahead of the indictment being announced, Fortenberry — sitting inside his pickup truck with his wife, Celeste, and their dog — said in aYouTube video that “a person from overseas illegally moved money to my campaign,” adding that he “didn’t know anything about this.”

Fortenberry said he had told everything he knew to the FBI agents. The charges brought against him came as a shock, he said.

“I feel so personally betrayed,” he said. “We thought we were trying to help.”

Throughout the trial, the congressman’s attorneys accused federal agents of setting him up — asking the unnamed fundraiser host to feed Fortenberry information about the donation during their 10-minute call in 2018. They also claimed Fortenberry had poor phone reception during the call and struggled to remember the details of the conversation when he spoke to investigators a year later, the AP reported.

The legal woes have come with a political cost to the congressman, who was first elected in 2004. Fortenberry stepped down in October as the top Republican on the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture.

It is unclear whether Fortenberry, a nine-term congressman who is seeking reelection, will resign. When reporters asked whether he would be continuing his campaign, he dodged the question, saying only that his post-trial plans include spending time with his family.

Outside the courtroom, Fortenberry read a text from one of his daughters, who he said was away at college.

“She said, ‘I love you, Daddy, no matter what anyone accuses you of. Just remember so many other people do, too,‘” Fortenberry said. As he talked, his phone pinged several times with “so many beautiful messages from people literally all around the world, praying for us and pulling for us,” he said.

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