May 10, 2024

Fortenberry charged again for lying after 2016 fundraiser collected foreign funds

Posted May 10, 2024 4:00 PM
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, with his wife, Celeste, at his side, talks to reporters just after a federal jury found him guilty. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, with his wife, Celeste, at his side, talks to reporters just after a federal jury found him guilty. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Zach Wendling

Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry faces refiled charges from a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., for allegedly lying to FBI agents about illegal foreign money raised for his 2016 congressional campaign.

The grand jury charged Fortenberry with two felonies: falsifying and concealing material facts and making false statements to federal investigators. 

A federal appeals court had overturned his convictions for three felonies from March 2023 because prosecutors pursued the case in California, where the questionable fundraiser took place and not where the congressman allegedly lied. The court left open the possibility of prosecutors filing the charges again in either Nebraska or Washington.

Fortenberry’s conversations with federal investigators took place in 2019 at his Lincoln home and at his lawyer’s office in D.C. The charges allege Fortenberry did not spur his campaign to correct campaign finance forms with accurate information. 

Based on the new charges and recordings and testimony from his trial in California, Fortenberry denied any knowledge of illegal contributions from the California fundraiser. He did the same during the follow-up interview at his lawyer’s office in D.C.

Recording could be key

At trial, prosecutors played a recording of Fortenberry from 2018 speaking by phone with the organizer of the California fundraiser and being told that the $30,000 raised was likely illegal and had been delivered in a paper sack.

Part of why Fortenberry was charged with lying, the charges allege, is that he denied being told by the organizer what the recording revealed he had been told. He also denied being aware of the “illicit contribution” during the fundraiser.

Fortenberry argued at trial that he had a bad connection and may have misheard the call.

FBI agents began looking into potential foreign contributions to federal campaigns in 2015 from Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who lives in France. Federal law prohibits raising foreign money for federal races.

The charges say that Fortenberry “had become aware” that Chagoury was the source of the money and that the organizer had been distributing money from a foreign national and kept asking to host another fundraiser.

Fortenberry had long supported the mission of Chagoury’s organization, In Defense of Christians, which works to protect Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Prosecutors had no immediate comment.

Charges called  ‘overzealous’

Fortenberry’s spokesman, Chad Kolton, described the charges as political and “overzealous.” He said prosecutors were “dragging Jeff Fortenberry around the country to face one trial after another until it can secure a conviction that … holds up.”

He said that the case should never have been prosecuted the first time and that it should have been dropped after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the California convictions. He blamed the Biden administration and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

“Federal prosecutors should have better things to do than force a distinguished former public servant to incur massive additional legal costs despite already having resigned his office and performed his sentence from a conviction that was ultimately overturned,” Kolton said.