A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska with scheming to falsify and conceal information from federal investigators who were looking into his 2016 campaign.
The indictment alleges that Fortenberry, a Republican who was first elected in 2004, repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during a federal investigation into illegal contributions made to his campaign by a foreign billionaire. Investigators say Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire, arranged for contributions of more than $30,000 to Fortenberry's 2016 re-election campaign through other individuals.
The contribution was allegedly made by those other individuals at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.
It is illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to a federal campaign and to disguise the true source of campaign contributions by funneling money through a third party. It is also illegal for a federal candidate to accept money from a foreign national or money that was contributed through a third party.
The person who co-hosted the fundraiser began working with federal agents in 2016 and informed the FBI and IRS about the illegal contributions. That led the FBI to start investigating whether Fortenberry knew that the donations had been made by a foreign national.
In 2018, Fortenberry contacted the host about holding another fundraiser, according to the indictment. Prosecutors say that the informant told Fortenberry that during the 2016 fundraiser one of Chagoury's associates had provided the informant with $30,000 to route to the Congressman's campaign.
But despite that he allegedly knew the funds came from a foreign entity, Fortenberry did not return it. Nor did he file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission, the indictment alleges.
The indictment says during a March 2019 interview, Fortenberry claimed he was never told about illegal campaign contributions and said he wasn't aware of any money coming from a foreign national. In a July 2019 interview, Fortenberry allegedly said that he wasn't aware of any wrongful donation during the 2016 fundraiser and denied that the informant had told him that Chagoury's associate provided the $30,000 at the fundraiser.
Hours before the indictment was made public, Fortenberry released a YouTube video to his constituents. Seated in his Ford F-100 pickup truck, next to his wife, Celeste, and his dog, he said he answered FBI agents' questions and "told them what I knew and what I understood." He said he was innocent and added that he was "shocked" and "stunned" by the charges.
"We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew," Fortenberry said. "This is wrong on so many levels."
Fortenberry is scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in 2019, admitting that he had provided about $180,000 to make illegal contributions to four different candidates. He agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with authorities. Chagoury's associate also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement.
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