Feds Re-Charge Ex-Rep. Fortenberry With Lying About Campaign Donations After Appeals Court Tossed Previous Conviction

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
May 10, 2024Judiciary
Feds Re-Charge Ex-Rep. Fortenberry With Lying About Campaign Donations After Appeals Court Tossed Previous Conviction
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and wife, Celeste, arrive at the federal courthouse for his trial in Los Angeles on March 16, 2022. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

Federal prosecutors have recharged former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, on claims he lied to investigators in a campaign finance probe.

Prosecutors had previously charged Mr. Fortenberry with scheming to make and making false statements about a $30,000 campaign donation his campaign had received in 2016.

A jury found Mr. Fortenberry guilty within hours of beginning their deliberations, after a weeklong trial in a federal court in Los Angeles. Mr. Fortenberry resigned from his House seat and was later sentenced in June 2022 to serve a term of probation, complete community service, and pay a $25,000 fine.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December 2023 that Mr. Fortenberry’s conviction should be overturned, concluding the case should not have been tried in Los Angeles. Though they threw out the conviction, the appeals court did not preclude federal prosecutors from seeking a new trial in Nebraska or the District of Columbia, where Mr. Fortenberry is alleged to have lied in 2018 and 2019 about his knowledge of illegal campaign contributions he took in 2016.

The new indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges Mr. Fortenberry with the same two counts on which he was previously convicted and then cleared; falsifying and concealing material facts, and making false statements.

Chad Kolton, a spokesman for Mr. Fortenberry, said the case should not have been brought in the first place and should not be pursued again after the 9th Circuit ruled in Mr. Fortenberry’s favor last year.

“This case has defined overzealous prosecution from the earliest days of the investigation, and retrying it in D.C. just highlights the prosecutors’ vindictive obsession with destroying a good man’s life,” Mr. Kolton told The Associated Press.

As of Friday, Mr. Fortenberry had yet named a legal representative in the new case, according to his federal court docket.

The Renewed Charges

As with the previous case, the new charges against Mr. Fortenberry center around a $30,000 donation Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury facilitated to Mr. Fortenberry’s 2016 campaign.

Foreign nationals are prohibited from directly contributing money to candidates for federal offices in the United States. A U.S. candidate is also required to file amended campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) if they become aware that a donation was made using false or inaccurate information.

Federal prosecutors say Mr. Chagoury made the $30,000 campaign donation to Mr. Fortenberry through a U.S.-based business associate named Toufic Baaklini. The prosecutors allege Mr. Baaklini then provided Mr. Chagoury’s donation to a series of U.S. individuals who in January 2016 gave to the Fortenberry campaign in their own names, to further conceal Mr. Chagoury’s illicit donation.

One of the individuals that Mr. Baaklini found to serve as a conduit for Mr. Chagoury’s illicit campaign donation began cooperating with federal investigators in September of 2016. This individual, identified in court documents as Individual H, tipped off investigators to the alleged scheme.

Prosecutors allege Mr. Fortenberry contacted Individual H in 2018, asking him for fundraising help. Individual H allegedly called Mr. Fortenberry in June of 2018, telling him that Mr. Baaklini had previously given him $30,000 to donate to the Fortenberry campaign. Individual H allegedly said this $30,000 donation “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause.”

While Individual H raised the possibility Mr. Fortenberry had received an illicit donation from Mr. Chagoury, he did not immediately move to file amended FEC filings, prosecutors say.

Investigators interviewed Mr. Fortenberry at his Lincoln, Nebraska, office in March 2019, during which prosecutors say the then-congressman said he was not aware of Mr. Baaklini making or directing any illegal campaign contributions.

Mr. Fortenberry is accused of again lying to investigators about the alleged campaign donation scheme during a July 2019 interview from his Washington D.C. office. The new indictment says the congressman did disgorge the suspect contributions after this July 2019 interaction.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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