He has drawn controversy in the past for his connection to former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, and was reportedly denied a visa by the State Department in 2015 because of his alleged support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party designated by the United States as a terror organization. According to the website OpenSecrets, he denied support for the group, but had reportedly funded a Lebanese politician who then funneled the money to Hezbollah.
Baaklini, according to court records, knew that Chagoury, a foreign national, was ineligible to contribute directly or indirectly to U.S. federal candidates. He nonetheless received $50,000 from Chagoury in January 2016, understanding that part of it would be used for federal campaign donations.
According to his signed statement, Baaklini provided $30,000 in cash to “Individual H” in Los Angeles, who then hosted a February 2016 fundraiser for a federal campaign, and recruited other donors to contribute to the campaign. The group did so knowing they would be reimbursed with Chagoury’s money.
The campaign in question was later reported to be Fortenberry’s, and Fortenberry’s indictment matches the details of the illegal transactions with those listed in court records for Chagoury and Baaklini.
In a conversation with Baaklini in late February 2016 after the fundraiser, Fortenberry appeared to notice the suspicious nature of the transactions, according to Baaklini’s signed statement. He allegedly asked Baaklini if he thought anything was wrong with the fundraiser. When Baaklini replied that nothing was wrong, but asked Fortenberry the reason for his question, Fortenberry allegedly said “something to the effect of, ‘because it all came from the same family,’” according to court records.
According to his indictment, Fortenberry lied to investigators in 2019 by claiming he was not aware of illegal contributions to his campaign by a foreign national, and that he was not aware of Baaklini’s involvement in the illegal contributions.
According to federal prosecutors, he was informed by “Individual H,” the host of the 2016 fundraiser, of Baaklini’s involvement in the contributions in 2018. Furthermore, the fundraiser host allegedly told Fortenberry of having received $30,000 from Baaklini and distributing it to other individuals to donate to Fortenberry’s campaign, and that the money “probably” came from Chagoury.
By that time, “Individual H” had already acted as an FBI and IRS informant on the illegal contributions, having done so by September 2016, according to court documents.
According to the indictment, the individual said that Chagoury “probably” provided the money for the contributions “because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause.”
However, Fortenberry allegedly did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission after having been informed of the illegal contributions, according to his indictment. He did not try to return the illegal contributions until July 2019 when his campaign disgorged them - after his interviews with FBI investigators - his indictment notes.
Furthermore, Fortenberry allegedly continued to ask the individual to host another fundraiser, the indictment stated.
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In a video posted to YouTube on Oct. 18 before the indictment was announced, Fortenberry said he let the FBI investigators into his house at the 2019 meetings and spoke with them to cooperate with them.
“We thought we were trying to help,” he said.
Chagoury illegally contributed a total of $180,000 to four federal campaigns, including Fortenberry’s, during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles. He reached a settlement with federal prosecutors for his actions in March 2021, agreeing to pay $1.8 million.
According to an analysis of court records by the website OpenSecrets, the illegal contributions listed in Chagoury’s deferred prosecution agreement match those listed in Federal Election Commission records for the joint fundraising committee for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, as well as to the re-election campaigns of House candidates Lee Terry and Darrell Issa in 2014, and Jeff Fortenberry in 2016.
Chagoury’s signed statement lists eight contributions to Fortenberry’s campaign dated March 12, 2016, which were reimbursed with his money.
Court records reveal that Chagoury in 2014 expressed an interest in contributing to politicians with whom he shared a “common cause.”