LOS ANGELES — A defense attorney for U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry hammered away Friday morning at the lead agent in the FBI’s investigation into illegal “conduit” campaign contributions provided to the congressman at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016.
At one point, FBI agent Todd Carter admitted that he listed the wrong date for when Fortenberry had introduced a resolution condemning religious genocide in the House of Representatives.
But otherwise, Carter repeatedly defended steps taken by the FBI in probing whether Fortenberry was aware he had been given illegal “straw man” donations that originated with a foreigner, Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris.
‘Probably’ from Chagoury
In court Friday, prosecutors again played an audio recording of a June 2018 cell phone call to Fortenberry from the organizer of the L.A. fundraiser. The organizer, Dr. Elias Ayoub, informed the congressman at least three times that the $30,000 given in 2016 was “probably” from Chagoury and had been funneled to L.A. through a Washington, D.C., associate of the billionaire.
“Yeah, it’s no problem,” responded Fortenberry on the call, which was recorded by the FBI, who had told Ayoub to make it clear the congressman had gotten illegal campaign gifts.
“Those words meant to me … that (Fortenberry) seemed to know some knowledge about it,” Carter said.
That knowledge, he testified, turned the congressman into a target of the FBI, raising concerns that the money might have been a bribe or an attempt to influence U.S. politics by a foreigner.
Fortenberry, who has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, wasn’t charged with taking a bribe or an illegal contribution, but he is being tried on three felony counts of lying to and misleading federal agents investigating Chagoury’s donations to a handful of American politicians.
His trial in a downtown federal courthouse in Los Angeles is now expected to continue for another week.
Fortenberry’s defense, as related by his attorneys, has been that either he didn’t quite hear what Ayoub told him in that pivotal June 2018 phone call or that the congressman was distracted or that he had forgotten what was said.
Prosecutors must prove that the 61-year-old congressman willfully and intentionally violated federal law.
On Friday, lead defense attorney Glen Summers sought to discredit the FBI investigation, boring into the defense theory that Fortenberry was “set up” for the indictments and then “misled” into talking with investigators.
He caught the FBI agent in one mistake.
In an October 2017 affidavit for a search warrant, Carter wrote that he suspected that the $30,000 given at the 2016 event was repaid by the introduction of a congressional resolution, shortly after the February 2016 fundraiser, condemning religious genocide.
The resolution was sought and in part drafted by In Defense of Christians, a group that got financial support from Chagoury. Dr. Ayoub served on the organization’s board of advisers.
Summers produced documents that showed the resolution was introduced in March 2016 in the U.S. Senate and that it had been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives — where Fortenberry serves — in September 2015, months before the February 2016 fundraiser.
“Sir, is Congressman Fortenberry a member of the U.S. Senate?” Summers asked. “So the information you submitted was incorrect, wasn’t it?”
$30,000 in an envelope
“It appears the date was wrong, yes,” Carter said.
Chad Kolton, a Fortenberry campaign aide, said Friday that the mistake was another indication the indictments should never have been brought.
“Today’s testimony highlighted the shoddy investigative work at the core of this case, with the lead FBI case agent testifying that he advanced the investigation due to his mistakes in the basic process of how legislation is introduced and passed,” Kolton said in a statement.
Later Friday, the founder of In Defense of Christians, Toufic Baaklini, testified that he delivered an envelope containing $30,000 in cash to Ayoub just prior to the 2016 fundraiser with the intent that it be distributed, through several conduits, to Fortenberry’s campaign.
Baaklini, who agreed to cooperate with the FBI investigation, also testified that he knew what he was doing was illegal.
Baaklini testified that he became good friends with Fortenberry and had the congressman speak at the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians in 2014. Fortenberry, he said, shared “the cause” of protecting Christians in the Middle East, where they are a minority religious group, with him and Chagoury.
During Baaklini’s testimony, Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, had a distressed look on her face. Baaklini said he’d become good friends with the congressman and that he had met Fortenberry’s wife, as well.
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