Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was found guilty last week by a federal grand jury of hiding information and lying to federal agents who were looking into illegal campaign contributions made by a foreign citizen his re-election campaign in 2016.
Fortenberry, from Lincoln, Nebraska and has been in Congress since 2005, was found guilty of falsifying and concealing material facts and two counts of giving false statements to federal investigators.
Federal Judge Stanley Blumenfeld set a date of June 28 for sentencing. Each of the felony charges can result in a five-year federal prison sentence.
According to US Attorney Tracy Wilkison, after finding out about illegal contributions to his reelection campaign, Fortenberry concealed the violations to protect his seat, his reputation, and his associates.
She noted that the lies in this illegal campaign contribution case endanger the American electoral system and were intended to prevent federal agents from learning about where his campaign contributions came from.
An IRS spokesperson added that the congressman lied to federal authorities to hide illegal contributions to his re-election campaign and that no one in the US is above the law.
Fortenberry Lied To Federal Authorities During 2 Interviews
Evidence during the week-long trial showed that the congressman lied to and misled federal authorities during two interviews held by federal law enforcement. They were investigating illicit contributions made to his re-election campaign made by an overseas billionaire in 2016.
Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national who is not allowed to contribute to US elections, gave $30,000 of his money to straw donors who went to a Fortenberry campaign event in LA.
It is against the law for any foreign national to offer financial contributions to a federal reelection campaign. It also is against the law for the actual source of campaign contributions to be hidden by funneling the funds through a third party.
Chagoury agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Attorney’s office in 2019. He admitted he gave $180,000 that was used to offer illegal campaign contributions to four candidates in US elections.
He paid almost $2 million in fines.
Co-Host Of 2016 Fundraiser Agreed To Cooperate With Feds in 2016
The co-host of the Fortenberry fundraiser, called Individual H in federal documents, started to cooperate with federal agents in 2016. He informed the agents of the IRS and FBI about the illegal campaign contributions.
In response, federal law enforcement started to look at if the Fortenberry campaign was the recipient of illegal, third-party contributions. They also investigated if the congressman knew about the illegal funds at the fundraiser.
They also looked into if Fortenberry was aware of the illegal campaign contributions from the billionaire and if Fortenberry communicated with Chagoury regarding the illegal contributions.
In spring 2018, the congressman reached out to Individual H about doing another fundraiser. In a phone call, Individual H informed the congressman on several occasions that a friend of Chagoury and a political friend of Fortenberry, Toufic J. Baaklini, had offered $30,000 cash. The money was sent to Fortenberry’s campaign at the fundraiser in 2016.
Individual H told the congressman that the money probably was sent from Chagoury.
Fortenberry Didn’t Report The Illegal Contribution To The FEC
However, Fortenberry didn’t file a report with the FEC to report the illegal campaign contribution. Instead, he made false and misleading statements in a March 2019 interview with federal agents who told him it was illegal to lie to the federal government.
Fortenberry improperly told law enforcement he didn’t know Baaklini was involved in making illegal contributions to campaigns. He added that the people who made contributions at the fundraiser in 2016 were legal. He concluded that he didn’t know about contributions to his reelection campaign from foreign nationals.
At the next interview in July 2019 with federal prosecutors and agents, Fortenberry made more false statements. He said he wasn’t aware of illegal donations made at the fundraiser in question. He also denied that Individual H informed him that Baaklini had offered the $30,000 in cash at the fundraiser. Fortenberry said he would have been horrified to find out about illegal, third-party contributions. But that was found by the feds to not be the case.
During this interview, he also said that he concluded the June 2018 call with the person called Individual H after he made a comment that concerned the congressman. However, Fortenberry kept speaking to Individual H to hold another fundraiser for his reelection campaign.
Congressman Resigned His Seat In March 2022
Fortenberry resigned his congressional seat at the end of March. He already had given up his committee seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy agreed with Fortenberry’s resignation. He noted that the congressman had his day in court and he can appeal if he wants, but he should do so as a private citizen.
It isn’t known at this time if Fortenberry will appeal the ruling.
A special election will be held on June 28 to fill the vacant seat. Lincoln Senator Patty Brooks has been named as the pick for the Democrats who will run. She told the media she thinks she has a good chance to win the special election.
If she wins the seat, this would be the first time the seat was Democratic since the 1960s. Brooks said that it is embarrassing that Fortenberry was indicted, but that she wishes he and his family well.