Head of Christian advocacy group resigns over ties to illegal campaign donations

Baaklini Toufic Baaklini at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, 2016 | In Defense of Christians

The president of an advocacy group for Middle Eastern Christians has resigned from the organization over his connection to illegal contributions to the campaign of a now-indicted congressman.

On Sunday, Oct. 24, the Washington, D.C.-based group In Defense of Christians announced that it had accepted the resignation of president and board chairman Toufic Baaklini. The organization noted “allegations of wrongdoing recently reported in the media in connection with campaign contributions.”

Earlier this year, Baaklini admitted to serving as a willing conduit for illegal donations by the billionaire Gilbert Chagoury to the re-election campaign of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). Both Fortenberry and Chagoury have ties to In Defense of Christians, and Fortenberry last week was indicted on charges of lying to federal prosecutors about the illegal contributions.  

In Defense of Christians stated on Sunday that “Any contributions made by, or through Mr. Baaklini to Members of Congress or candidates were in his personal capacity.”

The group did not respond to CNA’s request for comment on Monday. On Oct. 26, the group announced that vice president Tonia Khouri would assume the role of president, effective immediately. 

In Defense of Christians was founded in 2014 and has advocated for policies to protect Middle Eastern Christian minorities, such as congressional resolutions recognizing ISIS genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria, and emergency relief for Christian genocide victims. The group has also advocated for policies to support stability in Lebanon and resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

Nearly seven months prior to the announcement of Baaklini’s resignation from the group, he signed a March 31 deferred prosecution agreement with federal officials stating that he had knowingly helped Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire of Lebanese descent, illegally contribute money to a federal campaign that was later reported to be Fortenberry’s re-election campaign.

Currently serving his ninth term in Congress, Fortenberry, a Catholic, was twice questioned by federal investigators about the illegal contributions in March and July of 2019. Last week, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on two charges of making false statements to the investigators and one charge of concealing information.

In a federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 20, Fortenberry pleaded not guilty to all the charges. A pretrial conference has been set for Dec. 7, with a jury trial scheduled for Dec. 14. Fortenberry was ordered to post a $50,000 bond, according to news reports.

Chagoury and Fortenberry both have ties to In Defense of Christians. Fortenberry has been recognized by the group for his work in 2015 and 2016 to help pass a congressional resolution recognizing the genocide of Iraqi Christians at the hands of ISIS. He also served as a co-chair of the group’s 2020 virtual summit.

Around the time the illegal contributions were made to his campaign, Fortenberry appeared at a California chapter event of In Defense of Christians on Feb. 20, 2016, according to the group’s March 2016 newsletter. On Feb. 21, he was inducted into the Vatican Order of St. Gregory - an order which Chagoury is also a member of - according to the newsletter 

Chagoury was previously a major donor to the Clinton Foundation, and his philanthropic causes include education and health care in Lebanon. In 2014, he helped organize and finance the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians in Washington, D.C., according to his website.

Chagoury has served as Ambassador to the Vatican for the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, and according to his website, he has received a number of honors from the Vatican. He was made Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II in 1990, and was given the order’s Grand Cross by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Francis made him Knight Commander with Star in the Order of Pope Pius IX, in December 2016.

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.

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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.”

According to his signed statement, he was told by “Individual H” – who served as a conduit for his 2012 contributions to Romney’s re-election – that, by donating to candidates from “less populous states,” his contributions “would be more noticeable” and would thereby result in “increased donor access to the politician.” Chagoury then set about sending the individual money and directing him to donate to two 2014 congressional campaigns. 

According to his signed statement, Chagoury directed “Individual H” to donate $20,000 to a federal campaign in 2014, and the individual then found several other people to donate to the campaign. 

Chagoury and “Individual H” met again “at a conference in Washington, D.C. in September 2014,” where Chagoury suggested that the individual that host a fundraiser for “Candidate C” and contribute $30,000 to the candidate’s fund, which Chagoury would then reimburse for. It is unclear if the conference named in the documents was the In Defense of Christians summit, held from Sept. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. that year.

Chagoury’s statement notes that “Individual H” contributed $30,000 to the “Candidate C Fund” on Sept. 28, 2014.

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