Catholic congressman convicted of lying to federal investigators, pledges to appeal

Jeff Fortenberry Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) | Office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry

U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry has said he will appeal his Thursday conviction on three felony counts of lying to federal officials during their investigation of illegal donations to his campaign from a wealthy non-U.S. citizen.

While prosecutors said the conviction was justified, the congressman voiced concerns that the process was not fair and continues to deny wrongdoing.

“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 March 24. “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.”

The jury trial took about a week. Jury deliberations lasted about two hours.

“We always felt like it was going to be hard to have a fair process here,” Fortenberry told reporters March 24. “So this appeal starts immediately.”

“We always had concerns about the fairness of the process,” he said, thanking family and friends for their support.

Fortenberry is currently serving his ninth term in the U.S. House of Representatives and has an active re-election campaign. He is a Catholic and a Republican who has been outspoken on pro-life issues and on persecution of Middle Eastern Christians.

Fortenberry was found guilty on one count of “scheming to falsify and conceal material facts” and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California said Thursday. Each felony count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Sentencing is scheduled for June 28.

The case concerned Fortenberry’s comments to federal investigators in two 2019 interviews regarding their investigation into illegal campaign contributions in 2016.

Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, made a number of illegal contributions to four federal campaigns, according to the website OpenSecrets.

As a foreign national, Chagoury is prohibited from contributing to U.S. elections. However, he used U.S. citizens as conduits for his money to reach campaigns and political groups, including Fortenberry’s campaign, as well as those of congressional candidates Lee Terry and Darrell Issa, and the Romney 2012 presidential campaign.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Chagoury donated $30,000 to Fortenberry’s campaign through “straw donors” at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. A co-host of that fundraiser began cooperating with federal authorities and informed FBI and IRS investigators about the illegal contributions.

Investigators sought to determine Fortenberry’s knowledge of and involvement in these contributions. They said their investigation found that the congressman learned of the illegal contributions after-the-fact but he did not file an amended report with the federal elections commission.

During two interviews in March 2019 and July 2019, investigators said, Fortenberry made the statements that broke the law.

Prosecutors cited a secretly recorded phone call between Fortenberry and the fundraiser co-host in which the co-host said Chagoury probably funded the contributions.

Defense attorneys argued that an overzealous prosecution was behind the case and said investigators sought to feed Fortenberry information about the donation through the fundraiser co-host, the Washington Post reports. They said Fortenberry’s call with the relevant witness was not memorable and the congressman might have been distracted or unable to hear due to poor phone reception.

In an October YouTube video, Fortenberry denied lying to investigators. He said he let FBI investigators into his house for the 2019 interviews and spoke with them to cooperate with them.

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“We thought we were trying to help,” he said in the video last year.

Kristi Johnson, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said Thursday that the conviction “highlights the FBI’s commitment to holding elected officials accountable.”

“The verdict emphasizes the importance of being truthful to law enforcement and demonstrates the government’s dedication to keeping the nation’s interests free from foreign influence through illegal campaign contributions,” she said.

House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reacted to the verdict.

“When someone is convicted, it’s time to resign,” McCarthy said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “He had his day in court. I think if he wants to appeal, he can do that as a private citizen.”

Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine to resolve allegations that he gave about $180,000 to individuals in the U.S. to contribute to four political campaigns, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of California said.

According to the attorney’s office, Chagoury was assisted by Toufic Joseph Baaklini in making the illegal contributions.  Like Chagoury, Baaklini has also entered a deferred prosecution agreement. He has paid a $90,000 fine and has agreed to cooperate with investigators.  

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Both Fortenberry and Chagoury have ties to the Washington, D.C.-based group In Defense of Christians. Baaklini resigned as president and board chairman of the group in October 2021.

In Defense of Christians said in October 2021 that “any contributions made by, or through Mr. Baaklini to Members of Congress or candidates were in his personal capacity.”

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

One of the group’s major moments was a 2014 gala dinner whose more than 1,200 attendees included patriarchs and bishops of over a dozen Churches from countries throughout the Middle East.

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 the Islamic State. The congressman also served as a co-chair of the In Defense of Christians 2020 virtual summit.

Chagoury was previously a major donor to the Clinton Foundation. 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 also served as Ambassador to the Vatican for the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia. He has received a number of honors from the Vatican.

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