A close friend and supporter of a Nebraska congressman told a federal jury Friday that he acted as an intermediary in a plot that funneled $30,000 from a Nigerian-born billionaire to the Republican lawmaker’s re-election campaign through front men.
On the third day of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s trial in Los Angeles US District Court, Toufic Baaklini said he received the cash from businessman Gilbert Chagoury’s son, the source of the funds. He verified that he then left the cash in an envelope in a Los Angeles doctor’s car to distribute at the 2016 Fortenberry fundraiser in the city.
Baaklini is a central figure in the case in which the nine-term congressman faces charges of lying and misleading federal investigators about illegal contributions, which he denies. Prosecutors described Baaklini as a US-based businessman and consultant to Chagoury who later agreed to cooperate with federal officials.
Under questioning by prosecutor J. Jamari Buxton, Baaklini, who at the time headed a Washington-based group working to end the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, said he knew it was illegal under federal law. for Chagoury, who is not an American. citizen, to donate to the American elections.
Baaklini also said he knew it was illegal to donate campaign money in someone else’s name.
Fortenberry’s attorneys have argued that the case is staged based on fabricated evidence and that the congressman was unaware of the scheme to help finance his re-election bid.
Baaklini described himself as a close friend of Fortenberry’s and said the two came together for what prosecutors described as “the cause” — helping Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East. , In Defense of Christians, and are of Lebanese descent.
Buxton used a number of texts to highlight the close relationship Baaklini shared with Fortenberry, including other fundraising appeals from the congressman.
In other testimony, defense attorney Glen Summers continued his attempts to question the credibility of FBI Special Agent Todd Carter, a key player in the investigation.
Carter has said he was suspicious of Fortenberry’s role, and a possible quid pro quo, after the congressman proposed a resolution condemning the persecution of Christians in the Middle East shortly after the February 2016 fundraiser. But Summers pointed out that the resolution was presented in 2015, months before the event.
Summers also noted that Fortenberry had almost $1.5 million in his political treasury at the end of March 2016, apparently suggesting that he had no need to become involved in a plot to obtain $30,000 in illegal funds. She questioned why the FBI never held a meeting to warn the congressman of potential trouble, instead showing up unannounced at his home to question him.
But prosecutor Mack Jenkins countered that Fortenberry had been tipped off by investigators during the investigation, arranging a recorded phone call in which Los Angeles doctor Elias Ayoub told Fortenberry that he received the $30,000 in cash from Baaklini, and that Chagoury was probably the source. Defense attorneys have raised questions about what Fortenberry heard and understood from the call.
Fortenberry campaign spokesman Chad Kolton said in a statement that the testimony “highlighted the shoddy investigative work at the heart of this case.”
The congressman, who is running for re-election, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he knowingly misled FBI agents and prosecutors investigating the 2016 donations.
Prosecutors allege Fortenberry, 61, lied about what he knew on two occasions — an interview at his Lincoln home and a follow-up meeting in Washington — and failed to properly disclose the contribution in his campaign documents.
If convicted, Fortenberry would not automatically lose his seat, but House rules would bar him from voting in any committee or on the floor. He has already temporarily resigned from his position as ranking member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and member of the House Appropriations Committee, as required by House Republican rules.
With the trial underway, many prominent Nebraska Republicans have abandoned the incumbent in favor of a young, conservative state lawmaker who wants to oust Fortenberry in the May 10 primary.
The case stems from an FBI investigation into $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns by Chagoury, who lives in Paris. Chagoury admitted to the crime in 2019 and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.