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Rep. Jeff Fortenberry formally charged with scheme to deceive federal investigators

Nebraska Congressman says accusations are false
Posted at 8:33 AM, Oct 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 19:56:28-04

UPDATED: 10/19/21 5:30 PM

In a recorded video on Tuesday morning, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry said he expected federal charges accusing him of lying to the FBI. By the afternoon his indictment was confirmed.

UPDATE: Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry pleads not guilty to felony charges

Thom Mrozek, Director of Media Relations for United States Attorney's Office, Central District of California, confirmed that Fortenberry has been indicted by a federal grand jury.

The press release from the U.S. Attorney's office statesthat Fortenberry, who represents Nebraska's 1st Congressional District, is charged "with concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities who were investigating illegal contributions made by a foreign national to the congressman’s 2016 re-election campaign."

“To be accused of this is extremely painful and we are suffering greatly,” said Fortenberry.

The congressman said in 2016 money was illegally put into his account from a foreigner.

Court documents show that $30,000 was put into his account in March of 2016. The money originally came from Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury.

RELATED: 'Some very bad people illegally transferred money into my campaign' says Fortenberry

Those documents say that when Fortenberry got the money at a Los Angeles fundraiser he questioned the legality of the donations to Chagoury’s associate, Toufic Baaklini.

The affidavit says Fortenberry asked, “Do you think anything was wrong with the...fundraiser?”

Baaklini said, “No, why?”

Fortenberry responded, “Because it all came from the same family.”

Fortenberry said it was quiet until March of 2019, when the FBI visited his home in Lincoln. The Congressman said he was suspicious and had local police come and oversee the interview.

“Later we went back and answered further questions, I told them what I knew and understood. They’ve accused me of lying to them,” said Fortenberry.

Information from the Federal Election Commission shows he donated the same amount of money, $30,000, to local charities.

By far his biggest listed charitable donation since his time in Congress.

The court documents say Fortenberry was told in 2018, months before meeting with the FBI, that a person told Fortenberry the $30,000 “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury.”

In later interviews with the FBI, the document says Fortenberry denied being aware of any illicit donation or that any of the money came from Chagoury.

The affidavit also says Fortenberry never publicly disclosed the money came from Chagoury, violating federal election law.

The charging document says Fortenberry “knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device material facts.”

In an email to supporters, his wife Celeste said, “He’s got the truth on his side. But even an accusation is a hard reputational hit.”

Fortenberry, who spoke in a recorded video next to wife Celeste and family dog, inside a vintage pickup truck in a rural area, said he only talked to law enforcement to help and that he’s innocent.

“We’re shocked, we’re stunned, I feel so personally betrayed. We thought we were trying to help and so now we will have to fight,” said Fortenberry.

He's set to be in federal court Wednesday in Los Angeles.

After redistricting, Fortenberry — a conservative Republican — represents large parts of western Sarpy County, including Papillion, La Vista and Bellevue.

Earlier in October, 3 News Now reported that Fortenberry was raising money for a legal defense fund. A website that appeared to be intended to raise funds for Fortenberry's defense was discovered by the political website, Axios. On it, Fortenberry wrote, “Biden's FBI is using its unlimited power to prosecute me on a bogus charge.” That webpage is no longer active, but Axios saved a copy of it.

The email from Mrozek states:

"Fortenberry, 60, of Lincoln, Nebraska, was named in an indictment that charges him with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators...

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 foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, arranged for $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 $180,000 that was used to make illegal contributions to four different political candidates in U.S. elections. Chagoury also agreed to pay a $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 – both foreign contributions and conduit 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 $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.

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The three felony charges in the indictment each carry a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.

Through his attorney, Fortenberry has agreed appear for an arraignment on Wednesday, October 20 in United States District Court in Los Angeles.

The FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation are investigating this matter.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Mack E. Jenkins, Chief of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section, and Susan S. Har, also of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section."

SEE MORE: Rep. Fortenberry raising money for legal defense

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