US Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska pleads not guilty to charges related to alleged illegal campaign contributions
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska), former ranking member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has resigned his committee assignments after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for concealing information and making false statements to authorities.
Fortenberry, who has been a member of Congress since 2005, stepped down from his committee assignments and pleaded not guilty on October 20 to one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators, all felony charges that each carry a maximum of five years in federal prison. The indictment was issued on October 19.
Details of indictment
The indictment alleges that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during a federal investigation into illegal contributions to Fortenberry’s re-election campaign made by a foreign billionaire in early 2016. Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-born, Paris-based foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, arranged for US$30,000 of his money to be contributed through other individuals (conduits) to Fortenberry’s campaign during a fundraiser held in Los Angeles, according to the indictment.
It is illegal for foreign nationals to 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. And it is illegal for a federal candidate to knowingly receive foreign or conduit contributions. Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States Attorney’s Office in 2019 in which he admitted providing approximately US$180,000 that was used to make illegal contributions to four different political candidates in U.S. elections. Chagoury also agreed to pay a US$1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.
The co-host of the Fortenberry 2016 fundraiser, who is referred to in the indictment 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, the indictment states. In response, investigators began looking into whether the Fortenberry campaign received illegal conduit contributions, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal contributions at the 2016 fundraiser, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal foreign contributions from Chagoury, and whether Fortenberry had any direct or indirect communications with Chagoury in relation to the 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 Chagoury associate – Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors – had provided him with US$30,000 cash to route to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser, the indictment alleges. Individual H allegedly 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, the indictment alleges.
The indictment alleges a scheme in which Fortenberry, after learning this information, “knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device material facts” about the illegal campaign contributions.
As part of the scheme, Fortenberry allegedly 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. The indictment alleges that 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 allegedly made additional false statements, including denying he was aware of any illicit donation 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, according to the indictment.
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, the indictment states.
Denies charges, released on bond
Fortenberry has denied the charges, saying he did not lie to FBI agents and that he told them what he knew. His attorney said at the arraignment that the accusations have “tarnished his reputation” and are “completely out of character.”
U.S. District Cour Judge Rozella Oliver of California released Fortenberry on US$50,000 bond and ordered him not to contact witnesses involved in the case, although some of those witnesses are current and former employees of the defendant.