How Rep. Jeff Fortenberry Landed in Federal Court This Week
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
March 14, 2022, 7 a.m. ·
Listen To This Story
Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry goes on trial this week, accused of lying about accepting illegal campaign donations.
The three felony charges carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. A jury of Californians seated at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles will determine his guilt.
After nine terms in Washington D.C., Fortenberry is fighting for his political life with depleted support from fellow Republicans and lackluster fundraising in the middle of a primary election.
How does a member of Congress who managed to avoid most controversy during 20 years in public life find himself in front of a jury in federal court with the prospect of serving time in prison?
Many of his constituents were caught off guard when Fortenberry released a YouTube video, revealing a Federal Grand Jury had indicted him last October. The official announcement from the U.S. Department of Justice came the following day.
In the video, Fortenberry sits in the cab of a vintage Ford pick-up next to his wife, Celeste, and his hunting dog, as he tells the constituents, "I wanted to send you a video because we do have something hard to tell you."
He explained FBI agents interviewed him about accepting illegal campaign donations, and "they've accused me of lying to them, and are charging me with this. We're shocked. We're stunned."
The story had its origins in 2014 when Fortenberry took up the cause of the Christian minority facing persecution in the Middle East. He'd developed a relationship with the non-profit advocacy In Defense of Christians and its president, Toufic Baaklini.
Baaklini, an American citizen, had donated legally to Fortenberry's campaign. He also helped organize a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. In his own conversations with federal investigators, Baaklini acknowledged he acted at the behest of Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-born industrialist living in Nigeria and reportedly one of the richest men in Africa.
Chagoury had a reputation for befriending Nigeria's dictatorial head of state Sani Abacha and seeking access to American political leaders. He made headlines when it was revealed he donated large sums to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's family foundation.
Anna Massoglia, who researched Chagoury's donations for Open Secrets.org, told Nebraska Public Media News he had been "a quiet figure since the 1990s who had sought influence on "both sides of the aisle" among Washington's political leaders.
Fortenberry told federal investigators he met Chagoury twice during visits in Washington and Paris.
Court documents report Chagoury provided money to Baaklini, who in turn handed out checks to a group of American citizens attending a 2016 fundraising event in Los Angeles. The host of the fundraiser, identified only as Individual H in the indictment, is scheduled to testify for the prosecution at Fortenberry's trial.
Had billionaire Chagoury written a check to Fortenberry's campaign in his own name, it would have been publicly reported by the Federal Election Commission and flagged as an illegal donation from a non-U.S. citizen.
Instead, Massoglia explained, he chose to obscure the $30,000 using "straw donors" who "can act effectively as conduits for a foreign national giving money to campaigns."
"This happens because foreign nationals are prohibited from giving to campaigns or getting involved in US elections, pushing for specific candidates," she said.
While Fortenberry denies knowing the donation to his campaign originated with a foreign donor, jurors will hear a tape recording of a phone call made by Individual H in cooperation with the FBI. In the conversation, the fundraiser's host purportedly told Fortenberry more than once the contributions originated with Chaugary and might be a problem.
The government had also confronted Chagoury and Baaklini, who admitted to the deceit. Both men struck plea deals with the U.S. Attorney. In exchange, they provided details about contributions to Fortenberry and three other members of Congress.
Sometime later, the Congressman got the knock on the door at his Lincoln home, as he explained in his pick-up video.
"They were FBI agents from California. I let them in my house," he said. "I answered their questions. Later, we went back and answered further questions. I told them what I knew and what I understood.
In a second interview with investigators in Washington, Fortenberry again denied knowing the money was tainted.
Months later, he was charged with lying to the FBI and interfering with a federal investigation.
"I feel so personally betrayed," he told the video audience. "We thought we were trying to help (the investigators), and so now we will have to fight."
Campaign finance regulations attempt to limit the influence of non-citizens on American elections. It became the law in the wake of President Nixon's Watergate scandal.
There was concern that foreign money could provide an undue influence on U.S. politics as a result, and that made its way into modern campaign finance law, said Bert Johnson, a campaign finance researcher with Middlebury College in Vermont.
Johnson said rather than having wealthy individuals from outside the U.S. contributing to gain access to public officials, "we think, in representative systems such as ours, the people who should be influencing our representatives are citizens of the United States, whether it be through campaign finance, voting or other ways."
According to court documents, Individual H once advised Chagoury to donate to representatives in rural states because, in those campaigns, small donations make a big impression.
In the world of American campaign finance, a misbegotten $30,000 donation weighs in as a small offense. However, Former U.S. Attorney and Loyola Marymount law professor Laurie Levenson says it sends a message to public officials.
"I think the Department of Justice is developing zero tolerance for those who would violate the rules and then lie about it," she said in a phone interview.
"Where Fortenberry really got himself in trouble was lying, and that's where the prosecutors have gone after him," she said. "They don't need to bring a bribery charge. They don't have to show the quid pro quo. They just have to show the lies."
In a barrage of court filings, Fortenberry's defense team claimed the investigation was a political set-up against the Republican Congressman, skimming over the fact the billionaire Chagoury sought influence across the political spectrum in Washington.
All attempts to introduce evidence of political motives have been squelched by Judge Sidney Blumenfeld, a Trump nominee, to the bench.
Whatever the jury's verdict, it will impact the coming primary election.
After years of easy reelections, Fortenberry faces a challenge for the 1st District seat in the House of Representatives from within the Republican primary.
State Senator Mike Flood of Norfolk entered the race within days of the indictment being announced by the DOJ.
Without waiting for a verdict on Fortenberry, prominent Republicans abandoned the once-reliable vote-getter.
"He is in the fight of his life in this legal battle," said former Governor Dave Heineman.
Labeling himself a 1st District voter, Heineman said he'd been talking to other Republicans who "are very apprehensive about this legal dilemma" Fortenberry is in. Governor Pete Ricketts joined him in shifting their support to Sen. Flood.
The trial is expected to last up to six days. Jury selection begins Wednesday.
Get the latest from around Nebraska delivered to your inbox