A federal grand jury indicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on Tuesday, alleging that the Nebraska GOP congressman concealed information and made false statements to authorities.
The Justice Department said that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during an investigation into illegal contributions to his reelection campaign that were made by a Nigerian-born billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury. He is charged with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.
Just hours before, Fortenberry made a move rarely seen in Washington, preemptively warning his supporters he would be facing charges in the FBI campaign finance probe — and trying to raise money off of it. In a fundraising email sent Tuesday on behalf of the GOP lawmaker, co-signed by both Fortenberry and his wife, they told constituents and donors that an unnamed California prosecutor was expected to move to indict him on charges that he lied to federal agents.
“[T]his accusation is entirely false. Jeff did not lie to the FBI. This has all the marks of being a political attack, a bogus charge manufactured to take him out,” reads the email, reported earlier by the Omaha World-Herald.
Fortenberry, whose three felony charges each carry a maximum of five years in federal prison, has agreed to appear in court for his arraignment on Wednesday.
The charges against Fortenberry emerged from a case against Chagoury, who under federal law cannot contribute to U.S. elections but admitted to providing approximately $180,000 to make campaign donations. According to his deferred prosecution agreement, a Chagoury associate — who ultimately helped funnel money to candidates — counseled the billionaire that contributions to U.S. politicians in less-populous states were more noticeable and “promote increased donor access to the politician.”
Chagoury acknowledged that he did pay the sum to make campaign contributions and paid a $1.8 million fine to resolve the allegations (and began cooperating with authorities). The candidates and campaigns who received funds are not named in the indictment released Tuesday, but POLITICO reported earlier this year that individual Chagoury-connected donations match gifts to then-presidential candidate and now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), former Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Fortenberry.
The Justice Department, which investigated the case during the Trump administration, alleged that Chagoury arranged for $30,000 to be contributed to Fortenberry’s campaign through other individuals. His associate, named Toufic Joseph Baaklini, then provided $30,000 in cash to someone identified as “Individual H” by DOJ at a Los Angeles restaurant in January 2016. Individual H later hosted a fundraiser Fortenberry attended, where the individual and others made contributions to the lawmaker’s campaign fund amounting to $30,200.
Fortenberry contacted Individual H, who has cooperated with law enforcement, in spring 2018 about hosting another fundraiser, according to the indictment. The individual told Fortenberry on a call in June of that year that Baaklini had provided him with $30,000 for his campaign, that he distributed the money to others for campaign donations and that the money “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury.” It is illegal for individuals to funnel campaign money in the names of other people in order to conceal their identities.
DOJ says that Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the FEC to reflect the improper donations, nor did he return the money, and instead covered his tracks. He lied to the FBI during a March 2019 interview, according to the indictment, during which he told authorities that he was unaware of Baaklini ever making illegal contributions and of any foreign nationals’ contributions to his campaign.
During a second interview in July 2019, Fortenberry lied again to authorities and said he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illicit scheme, per prosecutors. Fortenberry also claimed to have ended the 2018 call with Individual H after the person made a “concerning comment,” DOJ stated. Prosecutors say Fortenberry continued to ask for the individual to host another fundraiser, even after he knew about the illegal contributions.
But Fortenberry has a different story.
The lawmaker says he first became involved in the FBI investigation when a foreign national tried to funnel $30,000 to him during a fundraiser in 2016, during which he raised a total of roughly $37,000. And he denied knowing about the origins of the majority of the cash, while claiming the FBI “assured and reassured” him that he was not a target.
“They knew he had no knowledge of the illegal donations, and was in fact a victim of that crime,” the Fortenberrys’ joint email reads.
Fortenberry called former Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former federal prosecutor, to seek his “advice and legal representation” after the first interview, according to the email. However, a campaign spokesperson told POLITICO that Gowdy is not currently providing legal counsel to his former House GOP colleague.
The case has been costly for Fortenberry’s campaign. John L. Littrell — a partner at Bienert Katzman Littrell Williams and a specialist in white-collar defense and investigations — confirmed that he is representing Fortenberry in the matter but deferred comment to spokesperson Chad Kolton. The campaign paid Littrell’s firm $80,000 last quarter, according to recent campaign finance filings. Additionally, Kolton’s communications firm, Blueprint Communications, was paid $20,000.
Kolton also declined to comment beyond the press release issued by the Fortenberry campaign.
Fortenberry also could pay a price on Capitol Hill for his indictment. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not immediately respond when asked for comment about Fortenberry’s future role on the House Appropriations Committee, where he serves as a top Republican for its subpanel on food and agriculture. A provision in House GOP conference rules says members facing federal charges must “step aside” from committee leadership roles as the legal process plays out.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said in an interview that “I’ve enjoyed serving with” Fortenberry, “and I would find that out of character for the man that I’ve served with.”
The Republican was likely planning for a possible indictment for some time, said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party — who pointed out the green-colored corn in the background of a video the lawmaker posted concerning his legal threat. By now, Kleeb said, the state’s corn has either been harvested or turned brown. Kleeb argued that the case may hurt Fortenberry in the cities in his district, which remains very Republican, and compel Democrats to put up a competitive challenger.
“Nebraskans don’t like when politicians lie,” she said. “There is so many questions that go beyond his, you know, YouTube video that he put up that I think he has to answer for.”
The lawmaker’s video itself acknowledges that a long legal battle could lie ahead for him, who says even mere accusations will cause harm.
“Even an accusation is a hard reputational hit,” the release says. “A false accusation is a particularly nasty hit. And the process could take years.”
Ally Mutnick and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.