Congressman Convicted of Accepting Illegal Foreign Campaign Contribution
WASHINGTON — Nebraska’s longest-serving member of Congress was convicted Thursday of concealing illegal campaign contributions received from a Nigerian billionaire.
The jury in Los Angeles decided that on at least two occasions Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry lied to FBI agents about receiving $30,000 from a foreign contributor who was trying to win his influence. Fortenberry said he was unaware of the contribution.
He is a nine-term member of Congress whose seniority has earned him power within the ranks of Republicans and on congressional committees.
He is scheduled to be sentenced June 28 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Until then, he is free on bond. He said he would appeal.
U.S. Attorney Susan S. Har told the jury during her closing statement that Fortenberry “didn’t think he would get caught” when he agreed to accept the contribution from an associate of Gilbert Chagoury during a 2016 campaign fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Chagoury is a Nigerian of Lebanese ancestry who leads an industrial conglomerate valued at around $4.2 billion.
He has admitted to the Justice Department that he tried to evade laws that forbid foreign nationals from contributing to U.S. election campaigns by funneling the money through his American business associates.
Prosecutors played recordings during Fortenberry’s trial that show he repeatedly misled investigators. He was charged with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.
The primary evidence was a 2018 recorded phone call in which Fortenberry speaks with Elias Ayoub, the host of the Los Angeles fundraiser where the illegal donation was made to Fortenberry’s campaign.
The recording shows Fortenberry was told three times Chagoury’s contribution violated federal election laws.
Fortenberry did not know the 10-minute call was being recorded or that Ayoub was assisting a government investigation.
In a separate recording months later at Fortenberry’s home in Washington, D.C., the congressman told FBI agents he was unaware of illegal contributions to his campaign. He added that he was bothered by statements Ayoub made in their earlier phone call.
He knew he was being recorded with audio and video during the FBI interview.
John L. Littrell, Fortenberry’s attorney, said at trial the congressman might not have understood the contributions were illegal when he spoke with Ayoub on the phone because he “doesn’t listen” well. In addition, there were questions about the quality of the cell phone connection, the attorney said.
“I’m not asking you to like Fortenberry,” Littrell told the jury. “His flaws were really brought to light in this case. Like I said, he talks too much, and that really got in his way. He doesn’t listen well enough.”
Littrell said Fortenberry did not testify at trial because he did not remember the phone call with Ayoub.
The jury took about two hours to return guilty verdicts on all charges. Each count could result in a five-year prison sentence and fines.
Fortenberry has not said whether the conviction will affect his plan to run for reelection.
Other members of Congress are not waiting for him to decide.
“Fortenberry’s conviction represents a breach of the public trust and confidence in his ability to serve,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “No one is above the law. Fortenberry must resign from the House.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, “He had his day in court. I think if he wants to appeal, he can go do that as a private citizen.”
Tom can be reached at [email protected].
This story was corrected to reflect that REp. Fortenberry did not resign from office last October. He announced his resigation on Saturday, March 26, 2022.
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