Skip to main content

Nebraska GOP Rep. Who Said He Was ‘Suffering Greatly’ After Indictment Is Convicted of Lying to Feds About Foreign Campaign Contributions

Jeff Fortenberry was surrounded by his wife (left) and some of his children during a press gaggle outside federal court in California.

Jeff Fortenberry was surrounded by his wife (left) and some of his children during a press gaggle outside federal court in California.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb. 1), who said in a social media video that he was “suffering greatly” around the time of his indictment, was convicted Thursday night of “concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities,” the U.S. Department of Justice has announced.

“I let them in my house,” Fortenberry said regarding the FBI agents who appeared at his doorstep to quiz him about a campaign contribution that originated with a foreign national. “I answered their questions. Later, we went back and answered further questions. I told them what I knew and what I understood. They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this. We’re shocked. We’re stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. We thought we were trying to help. And, so, now we will have to fight.”

A federal jury in California rendered that fight futile.

Fortenberry, 61, of Lincoln, Neb., has been in Congress since 2005. The DOJ said a jury found him “guilty of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.” All three counts are felonies.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 28. The maximum penalty for each of the three counts is up to five years in a federal prison, though maximum penalties are unlikely.

“After learning of illegal contributions to his campaign, the congressman repeatedly chose to conceal the violations of federal law to protect his job, his reputation and his close associates,” United States Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a press release.  “The lies in this case threatened the integrity of the American electoral system and were designed to prevent investigators from learning the true source of campaign funds.”

“Today’s conviction highlights the FBI’s commitment to holding elected officials accountable,” said Kristi Johnson, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “The verdict emphasizes the importance of being truthful to law enforcement and demonstrates the government’s dedication to keeping the nation’s interests free from foreign influence through illegal campaign contributions.”

“Jeff Fortenberry lied to federal agents in order to cover up illegal contributions to his re-election campaign,” said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Ryan L. Korner. “The guilty verdict today shows that no one is above the law, and IRS-CI and our law enforcement partners will continue to hold our public servants accountable.”

Here’s how the feds say the case went down:

According to evidence presented during a seven-day trial, Fortenberry lied to and misled authorities during two interviews conducted by federal authorities who were looking into illegal contributions to Fortenberry’s re-election campaign made by a foreign billionaire in early 2016. Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, donated $30,000 of his money through “straw donors” who attended a Fortenberry campaign fundraiser held in Los Angeles.

“It is illegal for foreign nationals to make contributions to a federal campaign,” the feds continued.  “It also is illegal for the true source of campaign contributions to be disguised by funneling the money through third-party conduits.”

Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, admitted providing $180,000 in illegal contributions to four separate candidates, and paid a $1.8 million fine, the DOJ said.

The press release continued by saying that the “co-host” of the relevant 2016 fundraiser “began cooperating with federal authorities in September 2016 and informed special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation about the illegal contributions.”  An investigation ensued viz. Fortenberry and whether he “knew about illegal contributions – both foreign contributions and conduit contributions – at the 2016 fundraiser.”  They wanted to know “whether Fortenberry knew about illegal foreign contributions from Chagoury” and “whether Fortenberry had any communications with Chagoury in relation to the illegal contributions made at the 2016 fundraiser.”

The DOJ described the probe further:

In the spring of 2018, Fortenberry contacted Individual H about hosting another fundraiser. In a June 2018 call, Individual H told the congressman on multiple occasions that a close associate of Chagoury and political ally of Fortenberry – Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors – had provided him with $30,000 cash to route to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser. Individual H told Fortenberry that the money – which was distributed to other individuals at the fundraiser so the donations could be made under their names and avoid individual donor limits – “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury.”

Despite learning of the illegal campaign contributions, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission.

Instead, after learning this information, Fortenberry made false and misleading statements during a March 23, 2019, interview with investigators who specifically told him it was a crime to lie to the federal government. Fortenberry falsely told investigators that he was not aware of Baaklini ever being involved in illegal campaign contributions, that the individuals who made contributions at the 2016 fundraiser were all publicly disclosed, and that he was not aware of any contributions to his campaign from a foreign national.

A second interview occurred July 18, 2019, the DOJ said. There, “Fortenberry made additional false statements, including denying he was aware of any illicit donations made during the 2016 fundraiser, denying that Individual H had told him Baaklini had provided the $30,000 cash at the 2016 fundraiser, and stating that he would have been ‘horrified’ to learn about the illegal conduit contributions.”

“During this second interview, Fortenberry also misleadingly stated he ended the June 2018 call with Individual H after that person made a ‘concerning comment,’ when in fact Fortenberry continued to ask Individual H to host another fundraiser for his campaign, according to court documents,” the DOJ said.

Back when he was indicted, Fortenberry’s video plea for help called the case against him “wrong on so many levels.”

“I try to give you honest, clear answers and do my duty as a representative for our great state and for America, and I try to do forthrightly for you and our family,” Fortenberry said in the video. “To be accused of this is extremely painful and we are suffering greatly. We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew. But we need your help, first of all. Please pray with us, because this is a difficult time.”

Omaha ABC affiliate KETV confronted Fortenberry as he left the courthouse yesterday evening.  He began addressing the public by introducing his children and wife, who surrounded him for the photo op.

The politician-turned-convicted-felon said he was comforted by messages of love and affirmation from relatives and “people literally around the world.”

He especially said he wanted to thank his wife for her “courage and dignity.”

“This appeal starts immediately,” he said of his legal woes.  He also said he correctly ascertained that it would be “hard to have a fair process here,” e.g., in California.

When asked if he wished he hadn’t traveled to California to take the money, Fortenberry said the entire case was “all out in the open” given the trial that resulted in his conviction — but he refused to expound for the cameras that weren’t allowed in the proceeding.

“We always had concerns about the fairness of process,” he added.

Fortenberry is currently locked in a Republican primary with Michael J. Flood, the speaker of the state legislature.  Polls taken last month — before Fortenberry’s conviction — put Fortenberry ahead of Flood despite his status at that time as indicted.

Read the original indictment below:

[image via KETV screengrab]

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.