LOS ANGELES — Three other politicians discovered their campaigns got dirty money from Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury and got rid of it, a process in which they formally “disgorge” the money by donating it to charity.
The reason Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry didn’t do the same right away?
A prosecutor told him not to, according to his former attorney.
Trey Gowdy, who represented Fortenberry during the investigation into whether he received foreign funds, testified Wednesday that he suggested to prosecutors that Fortenberry would return the funds to the donors, after learning that the money “probably” came from Chagoury. It is illegal for elected U.S. officials to accept donations from foreigners.
Gowdy said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins, the lead prosecutor in the case, told him that Fortenberry shouldn’t return it back to the donors, in part because it could tip off the donors that they were under federal investigation. When Gowdy asked what Fortenberry should do instead, he said, Jenkins didn’t give any suggestions.
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“When you hear that something is going to hurt an investigation, and your purpose is to assist that investigation, you’re not going to do it,” Gowdy said.
Day 5 of Fortenberry’s federal trial marked the end of the government’s case, and the beginning of Fortenberry’s defense. As told through the first week of the trial, the entire saga started with Fortenberry’s support of In Defense of Christians, a group devoted to protecting Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
The A, B and C of IDC were Eli Ayoub, Toufic Baaklini and Chagoury, all of whom are of Lebanese descent. Chagoury used both Ayoub and Baaklini, who are U.S. citizens, to illegally funnel money to the campaigns of U.S. politicians, including: former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, California Rep. Darrell Issa, former Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry and Fortenberry.
The others disgorged the money from their campaigns. Prosecutors have pointed out that Fortenberry took 2½ years to do the same.
He didn’t do it even after he noticed that most of the money raised at a February 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles came from the same family. Seeing the same last name on the donor forms, Fortenberry asked Baaklini if he should be concerned — and Baaklini told him not to sweat it.
Fortenberry also didn’t get rid of the money after a June 2018 phone call in which Ayoub told him that Baaklini had provided $30,000 in cash for the fundraiser and that the cash “probably” came from Chagoury.
He also didn’t get rid of the money after the March 2019 FBI interview at his Lincoln home, prosecutors said.
Then came the second FBI interview in July 2019.
John Littrell, a Fortenberry attorney, asked Gowdy if he would agree with Fortenberry’s comment in July 2019 that he was “horrified” at finding out that it was Chagoury’s money.
Asked to describe Fortenberry’s reaction, Gowdy said: “Shock and anger. It was shock, with a subtext of anger.”
Part of the subtext of Gowdy’s testimony Wednesday was this: The attorney seemed to regret that he had allowed Fortenberry to be interviewed by the feds in July 2019.
A former federal and district attorney, as well as congressman, Gowdy said he believed that Fortenberry was trending toward a witness and that the government just wanted to “size him up” in terms of his reliability and credibility.
In reality, Fortenberry was the subject of the investigation. The FBI had taped the June 2018 phone call between Fortenberry and Ayoub. And FBI agents had taped the Lincoln interview and already had suspected him of lying.
An attorney asked Gowdy if he knew that the FBI had secretly recorded all of those events.
“No,” he testified, with a smirk.
Did he believe the feds were just sizing up Fortenberry as a witness?
“One-hundred percent,” Gowdy said emphatically.
Defense attorneys also introduced an FBI memo that they say shows the FBI had predetermined, even before the Lincoln interview, that they were going to charge Fortenberry. In the memo, agent Todd Carter wrote that he would approach Fortenberry and interview him “about his conversations with Ayoub and his knowledge of the source of the $30,000 campaign contribution.”
“Case agents will also seek to indict Fortenberry with misprision (concealment) of felony and conduit contributions. In addition, if case agents determine from the interview that Fortenberry is making false statements, he will be charged with false statements.”
A second FBI agent on the case, Edward Choe, testified that he hadn’t seen that memo and that he didn’t share the opinion that Fortenberry automatically would be charged.
And prosecutors argued that such memos are typical. Any criminal charges are subject to change, depending on what happens in the course of interviews and investigations, they say.
At that point, Choe said, agents had been continually checking to see if Fortenberry had gotten rid of the illegal campaign money. He hadn’t.
Another memo caused a stir Wednesday. Prosecutor Jamari Buxton told the judge that he wanted to introduce a memo that Fortenberry had sent to the U.S. House of Representatives clerk just last week, seeking to vote by proxy in the House because of the “ongoing public health emergency.” Fortenberry’s note made no mention of the real reason he can’t attend: this trial.
It would counter any notion that Fortenberry is steadfastly honest, Buxton said.
Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. considered it but ultimately decided against it. He said it would take too much evidence to establish why it was written and the process Congress uses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In other testimony, Fortenberry’s chief of staff, Andy Braner, testified that his boss is the country’s last “great statesman” and “a visionary.”
The nine-term congressman is so scrupulous that, Braner said, he once made Braner replace an office stamp on a piece of mail. Fortenberry handed him a stamp from his wallet.
“We’re not going to have the taxpayers pay for my personal mail,” Fortenberry told Braner.
Another time in 2019, Braner said, a visitor from the Middle East tried to hand Braner an envelope of cash in recognition of all the work Fortenberry had done in the Middle East. Braner refused.
Two days later, Braner informed the congressman of the interaction.
Fortenberry “was irate,” Braner said. “He said, ‘Call the (House) Sergeant at Arms and get him up here. We’re going to tell him everything and make sure that doesn’t happen again.’ ”
Prosecutors noted that the Middle East envoy had offered Braner cash just a month after the FBI had interviewed Fortenberry about his campaign receiving another foreigner’s cash. Hence the outrage, Buxton suggested.
Another House member told the jury that she has always known Fortenberry as an “honorable person.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat, said Fortenberry came across the aisle, literally, to meet her. He wanted to talk about a cause he thought she would share.
Eshoo, a half-Armenian, half-Assyrian representative from Northern California, said Fortenberry was sincere: He wanted her input on the issue of protecting religious minorities in the Middle East.
“That’s how I got to meet and work with Jeff,” Eshoo said. “I think he brings honor to what he does. ... He’s faith filled. He’s honest. His word is always good — I can’t say that about all members of Congress.”
Whether his word is always good is a question for the federal jury. Jurors are expected to begin deliberating the case Thursday or Friday. Fortenberry is charged with two counts of lying to the FBI and one count of trying to conceal his knowledge about the true source of the $30,000 campaign donation.
Fortenberry’s defense team is expected to continue Thursday to put the FBI on trial for its handling of the probe. Attorney Ryan Fraser blasted the FBI for showing up unannounced to the Fortenberry home and lying to Celeste Fortenberry, the congressman’s wife, about why they were there. Jeff Fortenberry had called then-Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister to send two officers to his house to screen and monitor the FBI agents. Bliemeister is expected to testify Thursday.
When FBI agents showed up, Fraser said, Fortenberry was exhausted, having just returned from a trip to Africa where he was briefed on elephant poaching.
“You would expect the FBI to warn you if you were the victim of an illegal foreign campaign donation?” asked Littrell.
“Oh, I would hope so,” Eshoo said.
She paused, correcting herself.
“I would think so,” she said. “Not just hope.”
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