Wednesday, June 7

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry found guilty on all three counts

LOS ANGELES — The jury took less than two hours deliberating in the federal case of Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry: guilty on one count of concealment of conduit contributions and two counts of lying to the FBI.

The case stems from an investigation into illegal campaign donations originating from a Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury.

The nine-term Republican congressman faces up to five years in prison on each count, though supervised release is also a possibility.

His sentencing is scheduled for June 28.

Outside the courthouse, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry acknowledged the support of his family and others throughout the week-long trial.

“We always felt like it was going to be hard to have a fair process here,” he said. “So this appeal starts immediately.”

Just two hours before the verdict Thursday, the jury heard closing arguments. Prosecutors laid out a slide show of the illegal flow of foreign money into Fortenberry’s campaign coffers because of the congressman’s support for “the cause.” That cause was the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

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Chagoury gave a bag of $30,000 cash to Toufic Baaklini. Baaklini passed it to Los Angeles Dr. Eli Ayoub. Ayoub gave it to his relatives so they could write checks to Fortenberry at an LA fundraiser in 2016.

Prosecutor Susan Har, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors to disregard the defense’s suggestion that FBI agents ambushed or targeted Fortenberry.

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“The question is not, ‘How could they look into the defendant?’ ” Har told jurors. “The question is, ‘How could they not?’ “

Fortenberry’s defense questioned how the prosecution could base its entire case on a 10-minute phone call from Ayoub to Fortenberry.

Lawyers duel over donations, intent at congressman's trial

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and wife, Celeste, arrive at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles last week.

In that June 4, 2018, call, recorded by the FBI, Ayoub told Fortenberry three times that Baaklini provided $30,000 in cash and that the cash “probably came from Chagoury.” It is illegal for U.S. politicians to accept donations from foreigners.

Attorney John Littrell blasted the FBI for waiting 293 days before confronting Fortenberry about the phone call and expecting him to remember everything.

He also blasted the lead FBI agent in the case — Todd Carter — for a memo he wrote in which he laid out, before interviewing the congressman, that he would be seeking to charge Fortenberry with misprision (concealment) of conduit contributions and, if he lied, making false statements.

“If you already have plans to indict someone, this is not a search for the truth,” Littrell said. “This is a setup.”

Littrell noted that Fortenberry’s campaign had $1.5 million in its coffers.

“Do you really think he would take and put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had almost $1.5 million in the bank?” Littrell asked jurors. “There’s no way he would.”

Littrell put up a slide emphasizing Fortenberry’s “presumption of innocence.” He followed that with a slide of Fortenberry’s official office photo that said “presumption of integrity.”

The defense attorney said he had never been in a case where every witness acknowledged that the defendant had a sterling reputation.

“Every government witness testified that he is a truthful person, a man of integrity,” Littrell said. One witness “said it best: He brings integrity to everything he does.”

That said, Littrell told jurors his client is “flawed.”

“He talks too much,” Littrell said. “He doesn’t listen enough. He should have paid more attention to his fundraisers.

“That’s all true. But that’s not a crime. … Having a faulty memory is not a crime.”

Littrell also noted the phone call had been played several times in court. He suggested to jurors that if they had to listen to the call again, that would amount to reasonable doubt. After all, he said, Fortenberry only heard the call once.

“If he didn’t hear, understand or recall the June 2018 call, then he’s not guilty of all three counts,” Littrell said.

Har and prosecutor Mack Jenkins, the lead attorney for the government, said there’s ample evidence that Fortenberry heard Ayoub’s words and was concerned.

The defense itself noted that he talked to four people after the phone call, including his wife. Celeste Fortenberry testified earlier Thursday that she advised him to contact an attorney.

Fortenberry did. However, that attorney said Fortenberry was so vague about what had been said that she considered it a nonissue. He definitely didn’t say anything about the possibility of foreign money into his campaign, the attorney testified.

Har said one of the most obvious restrictions on political fundraising is the ban on foreign money.

“It’s essentially campaign finance 101,” she said.

She said Fortenberry could have taken several off ramps. He could have picked up on his instincts that most of the checks had been written by one family. He could have gotten rid of the money by disgorging it — the formal term for when a politician donates suspected dirty money to charity.

He didn’t want to, Har said. He was running for reelection, she said, and he didn’t want the embarrassment surrounding a scandal of foreign cash in his campaign.

Prosecutors also pointed out several lies that they say Fortenberry told during interviews with the FBI. Handed a photo of Ayoub, Fortenberry told agents during an interview at his home in Lincoln that he wasn’t placing the doctor. After a few seconds, he said Ayoub may have given him a donation.

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Littrell had pointed out in defense arguments that Fortenberry didn’t recognize Ayoub because the photo was at least 10 years old, taken from a time when Ayoub still had dark, instead of silver, hair.

But Har noted that FBI agents had repeated Ayoub’s name several times. And Fortenberry clearly had a rapport with the LA doctor, based in part on the fact that the doctor had spent nine years of his medical training in Omaha.

“Not placing him?” Har asked. “It’s someone who hosted a fundraiser for him.”

In a follow-up interview in Washington, D.C., in July 2019, Fortenberry also claimed that he had cut off the Ayoub phone call when Ayoub said illegal cash may have been injected into his campaign. But audio of the phone conversation proves Fortenberry didn’t cut off the call.

“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple case,” Jenkins said. “It’s an all-too-familiar story of a politician caught up in the system, caught up in the cycle of power, who lost his way.”

Fortenberry, who is facing a Republican primary challenge for his seat in Congress this spring, answered questions about the future of his campaign by saying he was going to spend some time with his family.

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