Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Los Angeles to federal charges alleging he concealed information and lied during an investigation into illegal campaign contributions.
Fortenberry, 60, of Lincoln, Nebraska, was granted pretrial release on a $50,000 unsecured bond and ordered to avoid contact with witnesses. A tentative trial date of Dec. 14 was set during the hearing conducted via Zoom in downtown Los Angeles.
Fortenberry has officially resigned from his committee assignments in a move that was processed on the House floor Wednesday. He has served in Congress since 2005.
He was indicted Tuesday in Los Angeles on one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. He has said he did not lie to federal agents and vowed to fight back.
The indictment alleges that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during the federal probe into illegal contributions to his re-election campaign made by a foreign billionaire in early 2016.
Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, arranged for $30,000 of his money to be contributed through other so-called conduits to Fortenberry’s campaign during a fundraiser held in Los Angeles, according to the indictment.
It also is illegal for the true source of campaign contributions to be disguised by funneling the money through third-party conduits. And it is illegal for a federal candidate to knowingly receive foreign or conduit contributions.
Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2019 in which he admitted providing about $180,000 that was used to make illegal contributions to four different political candidates in U.S. elections. Chagoury also agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.
The co-host of the Fortenberry 2016 fundraiser, who is not identified in the indictment, began cooperating with federal authorities in September 2016 and informed special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigations about the illegal contributions, the indictment states.
In response, investigators began looking into whether the Fortenberry campaign received illegal conduit contributions, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal contributions — both foreign contributions and conduit contributions — at the 2016 fundraiser, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal foreign contributions from Chagoury, and whether Fortenberry had any direct or indirect communications with Chagoury in relation to the contributions made at the 2016 fundraiser, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In spring 2018, Fortenberry contacted the co-host about hosting another fundraiser. In a June 2018 call, the co-host told the congressman on multiple occasions that a Chagoury associate — Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors — had provided him with $30,000 cash to route to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser, the indictment alleges.
The co-host allegedly told Fortenberry that the money — which was distributed to other individuals at the fundraiser so the donations could be made under their names and avoid individual donor limits — “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury,” according to the indictment.
Despite learning of the illegal contributions, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission, the indictment alleges.
The indictment alleges a scheme in which Fortenberry, after learning this information, “knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device material facts” about the campaign contributions.
As part of the scheme, Fortenberry allegedly made false and misleading statements during a March 23, 2019 interview with investigators who specifically told him it was a crime to lie to the federal government. The indictment alleges that Fortenberry falsely told investigators that he was not aware of Baaklini ever being involved in illegal campaign contributions, that the individuals who made contributions at the 2016 fundraiser were all publicly disclosed, and that he was not aware of any contributions to his campaign from a foreign national.