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Nebraska Congressman Fortenberry indicted

Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 8:14 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2021 at 4:25 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (WOWT) - A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry with concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities.

The indictment follows an FBI investigation into contributions made by a foreign national to Fortenberry’s 2016 re-election campaign and charges the Nebraska Republican with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

The indictment states that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during the investigation. In early 2016, foreign billionaire Gilbert Chagoury arranged for $30,000 of his money to be contributed through others to Fortenberry’s campaign during a fundraiser held in Los Angeles, the document states.

Federal authorities say it is illegal for foreign nationals to make contributions to a federal campaign. It is also illegal for the true source of campaign contributions to be disguised by funneling the money through third-party conduits.

In 2019, Chagoury ended up admitting to providing about $180,000 to make illegal contributions to four political candidates. He agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.

Authorities say a co-host of the 2016 fundraiser began cooperating with federal authorities in September 2016 and informed agents with the FBI and IRS about the illegal contributions. Investigators began looking into whether Fortenberry was aware of it.

In Spring 2018, Fortenberry contacted the co-host about hosting another fundraiser. In June 2018, the co-host allegedly told the Congressman on multiple occasions that someone involved had provided him $30,000 for Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 event.

The indictment alleges that with that knowledge, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission. He allegedly “knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device materials facts” about the illegal campaign contributions.

The indictment also alleges that during an interview on July 18, 2019, Fortenberry denied he was aware of any illicit donation made during the 2016 fundraiser. During that interview, the Congressman also allegedly misleadingly stated that he ended the June 2018 call after the co-host made a “concerning comment” when in fact he continued to ask the person to host another fundraiser for his campaign.

Read the indictment

Anticipating the indictment, Fortenberry’s wife Celeste on Tuesday morning issued a message delivered by Fortenberry’s campaign. She said a California prosecutor would be accusing her husband of lying to the FBI. She called it a false accusation that has “all the markings of being a political attack, a bogus charge manufactured to take him out.”

The campaign’s message included a pre-recorded video of the Fortenberry couple and their dog sitting in a pickup truck in front of a cornfield. In the video, the Congressman explained that five and a half years ago, someone from overseas illegally moved money to his campaign with the help of Americans. Fortenberry said he was unaware it happened and that all of those responsible were caught and punished.

He said two and a half years ago, FBI agents arrived at his home to ask questions which he answered. He said he later answered more questions and told them what he knew and what he understood.

The Congressman said he was shocked, stunned, and felt personally betrayed. He said he thought he was trying to help.

He asked for prayers saying it is wrong at so many levels.

In her campaign message, Celeste Fortenberry explained how it all started. She said in 2016, a Lebanese community in Los Angeles held a weekend of celebrations which included a fundraiser for her husband. During the event, she said the Congressman was, “inducted into the Order of St. Gregory, a knighthood bestowed by the Pope, for his service to persecuted Christians in the Middle East.”

She said he raised about $37,000 at the event and that, unknown to him, a foreign national had given people at the event $30,000 to give to the Congressman. She acknowledged many of the donations were illegal but her husband had no idea.

Earlier this month, Fortenberry pushed back after a news website suggested he was raising money on the potential federal prosecution over campaign donations.

In a legal expense trust established to help Fortenberry, supporters were asked to give money to help his fight. The campaign included language like “Unlike Swamp Creature Nancy Pelosi, I’m a principled conservative who has NEVER abused my seat in Congress to get wealthy,” and “... right now I’m facing the Deep State’s bottomless pockets.”

His spokesman said Rep. Fortenberry never saw or approved the language.

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