Rep. Jeff Fortenberry expects the federal government to charge him with lying to the FBI during its investigation of campaign contributions funneled to him from a Nigerian billionaire.
The nine-term Republican from Lincoln said he is being wrongly accused.
“We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them,” Fortenberry said in a videotaped statement obtained Monday by The World-Herald. “This is wrong on so many levels.”
Knowingly making false statements to a federal agent is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. A source familiar with the investigation said an indictment could come down as early as Tuesday.
The anticipated indictment grew out of an FBI investigation, launched in California during the Trump administration, regarding $180,000 in illegal “conduit” campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. The contributions, funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016, went to four U.S. politicians, including $30,200 to Fortenberry in 2016 and $10,000 to then-Rep. Lee Terry, who represented the Omaha area, in 2014.
Fortenberry apparently isn’t in trouble for receiving the contributions; his campaign has said he was unaware that the money came from Chagoury. Instead, the congressman faces prosecution because of what he told or did not tell agents during their investigation into Chagoury’s scheme.
Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, said in a statement emailed to supporters early Tuesday that the expected indictment “has all the marks of being a political attack, a bogus charge manufactured to take him out.”
“This accusation is entirely false. Jeff did not lie to the FBI,” she said.
Both she and her husband asked for support and prayers, and expressed hope that “justice” prevails.
In their statements, the Fortenberrys said two FBI agents from California had come to the door of their Lincoln home in March 2019, just after a “bomb cyclone” hit Nebraska, causing record flooding.
Celeste Fortenberry said: “Jeff did agree to speak with them (note: don’t ever do that — your innocence won’t protect you) without a lawyer (ditto) in our living room. But he did call the police and ask them to stay for the conversation, because the story the FBI used to gain access to our home kept shifting.”
The congressman said he answered the questions posed by the agents and later, after conferring with a former GOP colleague and lawyer, Trey Gowdy, met again with the FBI to answer further questions.
“At every step, the agents and prosecutors assured and reassured Jeff and Trey that Jeff was not a target,” Celeste Fortenberry said. “They knew he had no knowledge of the illegal donations, and was in fact a victim of that crime.”
Rep. Fortenberry, in a video recorded in the front seat of his pickup with his wife sitting next to him, said he was “stunned” and “shocked” that he was facing an indictment.
“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” he said. “They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this.”
A spokesman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said Monday evening that he could not comment.
A spokesman for Fortenberry’s campaign said two weeks ago that the congressman was unaware that the $30,200 in contributions he received at an L.A. fundraiser in 2016 had originated from a foreigner, which is illegal.
It was reported in March that Chagoury, a resident of Paris, and two associates had agreed in 2019 to cooperate with the investigation. Fines against them — including $1.8 million paid by Chagoury — were made public this spring.
One of the billionaire’s associates, Toufic Baaklini of Washington, D.C., told investigators that he had run into Fortenberry after the fundraiser during which the $30,200 was given to the congressman. In that meeting, Baaklini said Fortenberry asked him if he felt that “anything was wrong with the fundraiser.” Baaklini falsely replied “no” and then asked why. Fortenberry reportedly responded “because it all came from the same family,” according to documents released by prosecutors in California.
In August, concern about the investigation prompted Fortenberry to establish a legal defense fund. The fund’s website said he was seeking donations because he was “facing the Deep State’s bottomless pockets.” Also this summer, he retained a new law firm that specializes in white-collar crime.
Chagoury is an international philanthropist known for his close ties to former President Bill and Hillary Clinton, including having donated at least $1 million to the Clinton Foundation. Other ties to a corrupt Nigerian president and Lebanese politicians have aroused significant suspicions, at one point placing him on the U.S. no-fly list over concern that he had funneled money to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
He returned an estimated $300 million held in Swiss bank accounts to the Nigerian government to secure immunity from prosecution after the death of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. In addition, Ray LaHood, a former Republican Illinois congressman and President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary, admitted to federal prosecutors this year that he hid a $50,000 loan that came from Chagoury.
The purpose of Chagoury’s illegal conduit contributions to Fortenberry and others have not been made clear, but Justice Department documents said he was advised to “contribute to U.S. politicians from less-populous states” because the gifts would be “more noticeable” and provide greater access to the lawmakers.
Fortenberry’s wife said her husband had gone to California in 2016 to accept an award from a Lebanese community in Los Angeles for his work in protecting religious minorities in the Middle East. That trip included the fundraiser during which Chagoury’s money — passed through Baaklini and another associate to the eventual donors — was given to Fortenberry. Campaign reports indicated that the Nebraskan received contributions from eight people; five of the donors had the last name Ayoub.
Baaklini’s LinkedIn page lists him as president of a group called In Defense of Christians, which advocates for the rights of religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis.
After questions about the 2016 contributions arose, Fortenberry’s campaign said he donated the money to charity. Federal Election Commission records show that in September and October 2019, he gave a total of $30,000 to two Nebraska groups, the St. Gianna Women’s Home and the People’s City Mission.
While Fortenberry did not specifically ascribe a political motivation to the anticipated indictment, his wife did. In her statement, Celeste Fortenberry said there had been “radio silence” from federal prosecutors “until the Trump Justice Department became the Biden Justice Department,” shifting from a Republican president in charge to a Democrat.
She said the U.S. prosecutor handling her husband’s case was “in the running for a big promotion.”
“And don’t forget the midterm elections right around the corner for control of the House,” she added.