US Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was convicted Thursday on allegations that he lied to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 donation to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.
A federal jury in California found the nine-year-old Republican guilty of one count of forgery and concealment of material facts and two counts of false testimony. Fortenberry was charged after conducting two interviews with FBI agents investigating donor Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.
Fortenberry showed no emotion when the verdict was read, but one of his daughters in the front row of the gallery began sobbing uncontrollably. After the jury left the courtroom, Fortenberry went to his wife and two daughters and put them in a hug. Then he kissed his wife on the lips and sat down again next to his lawyer.
The judge set the sentencing date for June 28.
Fortenberry, 61, argued in court that prosecutors knew the congressman didn’t know about the donation but directed a whistleblower to give him the information in a 10-minute phone call to try to prosecute him.
His lawyers said FBI agents interviewed Fortenberry on false pretenses nearly a year later and charged him when he did not remember all the details from the conversation.
Each charge carries a possible five-year prison sentence and fines.
The trial could end the political career of a congressman who is seen as a staunch conservative who drove to easy victories but is not a household name outside of Nebraska. Offenders are eligible to run for and serve in Congress, but the vast majority choose to resign under threat of expulsion.
Fortenberry, who is running for re-election, suffered a major political blow when prosecutors announced the charges, and his charges have already divided Nebraska Republicans, who supported him for years.
The jury deliberated about two hours before reaching their verdict.
Prosecutors arguedabout the illegal donation during an interview at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and a follow-up meeting four months later in Washington.
Defense attorneys said the FBI “set up” Fortenberry after a national investigation into foreign money funneled to members of Congress fizzled. They said Fortenberry’s fault was in voluntarily meeting with agents and prosecutors to help them with their investigation and having a faulty memory.
Celeste Fortenberry, the lawmaker’s wife, was the final witness in the case and testified that her husband did not remember the day they met. She said he hates making fundraising calls and is often on “autopilot” when making them.
Attorneys on both sides of the case centered their closing arguments on one such call with Dr. Elias Ayoub, who held the 2016 fundraiser for Fortenberry at his Los Angeles home.
Ayoub, who worked with the FBI, told Fortenberry during the recorded call in June 2018 that he distributed $30,000 to friends and family who attended the fundraiser so they could write checks for Fortenberry’s campaign.
The doctor said the money was provided by one of her associates and likely came from Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire living in Paris. Chagoury admitted in 2019 to pouring $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions into four campaigns and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.
The three men in the alleged plot to funnel the money to Fortenberry were all of Lebanese descent and had ties to In Defense of Christians, a Fortenberry-backed nonprofit dedicated to fighting religious persecution in the Middle East.
Fortenberry asked Ayoub on the phone to organize another fundraiser with supporters of her cause.
In 2019, Fortenberry denied to FBI agents that he received funds from a foreigner or through so-called conduit contributions, where the money was distributed to straw donors.
Fortenberry, unaware agents recorded his call to Ayoub, said it would be “terrible” if the doctor made such a claim about the origin of the funds.
Defense attorney John Littrell said the recording of the call only shows what was heard on Ayoub’s end and not what Fortenberry, who had poor cell phone reception, heard.
If Fortenberry hadn’t just heard three crucial words, he might have missed what Ayoub was trying to tell him about where the money came from, Littrell said. It’s understandable that Fortenberry didn’t remember the call more than a year later, he said.
“This is a memory test that any one of us would fail,” Littrell said.
The government misled Fortenberry about the purpose of visiting his home, told him it was a national security issue, and essentially mugged him and his family, Littrell said. Prosecutors then packaged statements to make them look more incriminating and used things Fortenberry both said and left out to make them more scathing, he said.
Littrell said the $36,000 his client raised in Los Angeles — most of it illegally — was a drop in the ocean for a congressman in an uncompetitive county with a healthy war chest.
“Do you think he would jeopardize his reputation for $30,000 if he had $1.5 million?” Littrell said. “That’s not possible.”