LOS ANGELES (NEBRASKA EXAMINER) — An FBI agent testified Tuesday he suspected that U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry lied about three key issues during an interview at the congressman’s Lincoln home in 2019.
Special Agent James O’Leary testified in federal court as jurors were shown video clips from a 45-minute interview that he and another FBI agent conducted with Fortenberry on March 23, 2019.
In that interview, Fortenberry initially denied knowing Dr. Elias Ayoub, who had hosted a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016 in which the congressman was given $30,000 in illegal, “conduit” political contributions that originated from a foreigner.
‘Straw man’ donation
Giving political donations through a “straw man” or conduits is illegal, as are political donations from foreigners.
In the 2019 interview, Fortenberry was asked more than once if he was aware of whether he had ever received donations from any foreign national, or through conduits.
He was also asked if he was aware that Toufic Baaklini — the head of a Washington, D.C. group called “In Defense of Christians” — had ever provided money for a fundraiser and directed others to give him contributions.
“No. I’m not aware of that,” Fortenberry responded.
Prosecutor Jamari Buxton asked O’Leary on Tuesday if that made him suspect that Fortenberry’s answers to those questions were false.
“I suspected they were false,” the FBI agent responded.
“Why?” Buxton asked.
June 2018 phone call
Because, O’Leary said, Fortenberry had been told in a June 4, 2018, call with Dr. Ayoub that the $30,000 in gifts were illegal conduit contributions that “probably” originated with Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris. Chagoury supported Fortenberry’s work with In Defense of Christians in working to prevent persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
As the testimony unfolded in a downtown L.A. courthouse, at least a handful of jurors on the panel of eight women and four men scribbled notes on notepads.
I'm a little hard pressed because you're making me go off memory – U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, during a 2019 interview with FBI agents
Prosecutors have charged Fortenberry, a 61-year-old Republican, with lying to agents in interviews in March and July of 2019, and attempting to conceal the L.A. donations. He faces up to five years in prison on each felony count.
The two interviews 2019, as well as the June 2018 phone call informing Fortenberry of the illegal gifts, are key to the prosecution’s case.
Forgot what was said
Fortenberry’s defense attorneys, meanwhile, have offered several explanations as to why the nine-term congressman didn’t recall the 2018 phone call warnings — that he didn’t hear them, didn’t comprehend their meaning or plain forgot what was said.
The defense has rested on the idea that FBI agents “set up” the congressman for an indictment by having Ayoub — by then working with the FBI — feed Fortenberry information that the L.A. contributions were illegal, and then charging him with not recalling it. They have called it a “failed memory test.”
On Tuesday, the defense introduced evidence that, initially, the FBI agents who arrived at Fortenberry’s door identified themselves as “out of Omaha,” instead of from California, and that they were doing a “background investigation” on a matter related to “national security.”
Defense attorneys also pointed out that Fortenberry, on March 23, 2019, might have been weary after just returning from a trip to Africa and from viewing epic flooding in Nebraska at that time. Yet he still gave a 45-minute interview, said defense attorney Ryan Fraser.
“I’m a little hard pressed,” Fortenberry said at one point on the video, “because you’re making me go off memory.”
Fraser also pointed out that Fortenberry had expressed concerns about “a couple of people” associated with the L.A. event but that the comment was cut off by FBI agents.
O’Leary testified that FBI agents often use “a ruse” so they can get an interview, and they often don’t announce that they are coming so that subjects cannot concoct a “cover story.”
Prosecutors, meanwhile, pointed out that it took 32 minutes into the 45-minute interview before Fortenberry identified who Ayoub was and said the L.A. surgeon had hosted a fundraiser for him.
‘I’m not placing him’
Initially, Fortenberry had told the FBI agents “I’m not placing him” and that Ayoub “may have” given him a political contribution but that he would have to double-check.
“I don’t know what you’re digging for, but I’m trying to help you,” Fortenberry said midway through the interview.
When the congressman was asked directly if he was aware of any illegal campaign contributions going to his campaign, he responded, “At this point, you’re starting to accuse me of something. … You’re not making me comfortable.”
“We ought to call a timeout,” Fortenberry added. But he soon continued the interview.
It was an unusual interrogation, O’Leary said, because two local police officers were present.
Fortenberry said he called Lincoln police because he was concerned about the unannounced visit from the FBI agents and said they had wrongly stated they were from Omaha. The officers checked the FBI agents’ badges and were present throughout the interview.
‘Lack of professionalism’
“We’re going to have a conversation before we have a conversation,” Fortenberry told the FBI agents at his doorstep, as a dog barked rapidly in the background.
He said the surprise visit showed “a surprising lack of professionalism” because he and his family had been subjected to death threats.
“It’s weird and bizarre,” Fortenberry said.
It is unclear whether Fortenberry will testify in his own defense. The prosecution is expected to wrap up its case later Tuesday. Defense attorneys said they may have nine to 10 hours of testimony.
Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: email@example.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.