A Nebraska Congressman Was Found Guilty In Los Angeles Of Lying To Federal Authorities

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was found guilty on federal counts of concealing facts and lying during an investigation into unlawful campaign contributions on Thursday in Los Angeles. Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, was found guilty of one count of conspiring to falsify and hide important facts and two counts of lying to federal investigators. According to The Associated Press, Fortenberry was impassive as the judge read the verdict, but one of his daughters rose up and sobbed uncontrollably. According to The Associated Press, after the jury had departed, Fortenberry walked up to his wife and daughters and hugged them before returning to his seat next to his lawyer.

Outside the courthouse, Fortenberry told reporters that the process had been unjust and that he would file an appeal right away. Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia has scheduled a sentencing hearing for June 28. The maximum penalty for each of the three felony offenses is five years in federal prison. During two interviews done by federal officials looking into illicit contributions to Fortenberry’s re-election campaign made by a foreign billionaire in early 2016, Fortenberry lied to and misled authorities, according to evidence given during a seven-day trial. Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national barred from donating to any U.S. election by federal law, gave $30,000 to Fortenberry’s campaign through “straw donors” who attended an event in Glendale.

Contributions to a federal campaign by foreign nationals are prohibited. It’s also against the law to hide the genuine source of political contributions by funneling funds through third-party conduits. In 2019, Chagoury agreed to a deferred prosecution arrangement with the US Attorney’s Office, in which he admitted to contributing $180,000 in unlawful contributions to four candidates in US elections. Chagoury agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and paid a $1.8 million punishment. Individual H, the co-host of the Fortenberry 2016 fundraiser, began cooperating with federal investigators in September 2016 and told special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigations about the unlawful contributions, according to court documents. As a result, investigators began looking into whether the Fortenberry campaign received illegal conduit contributions, whether Fortenberry was aware of illegal contributions — both foreign and conduit contributions — at the 2016 fundraiser, whether Fortenberry was aware of illegal foreign contributions from Chagoury, and whether the congressman had any direct or indirect communications with Chagoury regarding the contributions made at the 2016 fundraiser.

Fortenberry contacted the co-host in the spring of 2018 to inquire about hosting another benefit. On multiple occasions during a June 2018 call with the congressman, the co-host told the congressman that a Chagoury associate — Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors — had given him $30,000 cash to route to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser. According to the indictment, the co-host told Fortenberry that the money — which was transferred to other people at the party so donations could be made in their names and evade individual donor restrictions — “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury.” The congressman did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission despite learning of the unlawful contributions.

Instead, after discovering this knowledge, Fortenberry made false and deceptive statements to investigators on March 23, 2019, who clearly told him that lying to the federal government was a crime. Fortenberry lied to investigators, claiming that he was unaware of Baaklini’s involvement in unlawful campaign contributions, that the persons who donated at the 2016 fundraiser were all publicly declared, and that he was unaware of any foreign national contributions to his campaign.

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On July 18, 2019, during a second interview with federal investigators and prosecutors, Fortenberry made more false statements, including denying he was aware of any illicit donations made during the 2016 fundraiser, denying that Individual H had told him Baaklini had provided the $30,000 cash at the 2016 fundraiser, and claiming he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illegal conduit contributions.

According to court records, Fortenberry also indicated during this second interview that he halted his June 2018 contact with Individual H when that person made a “concerning comment,” but in fact, Fortenberry proceeded to push Individual H to hold another event for his campaign. “After knowing of illicit campaign contributions, the congressman repeatedly chose to hide the federal law crimes to protect his position, his reputation, and his close connections,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison. “In this case, the lies were intended to prevent investigators from knowing the genuine source of campaign donations, endangering the integrity of the American political system.”

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