A Nebraska congressman accused of lying to the FBI about an illegal $30,000 campaign donation from a Nigerian-born billionaire put his personal interests before duty and the law, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
US Representative Jeff Fortenberry hoped his privilege as a lawmaker would shield him from scrutiny and protect his impeccable reputation, Assistant US Attorney Susan Har told the jury during closing arguments in Los Angeles federal court.
“You’re not going to look the other way,” Har said. “The evidence has shown that the defendant is guilty and can no longer avoid the consequences of his actions.”
Fortenberry, 61, a nine-term Republican congressman facing re-election, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he knowingly misled FBI agents and prosecutors who were investigating the 2016 donations. It is illegal for politicians Americans accept foreign funds.
Prosecutors allege Fortenberry lied about what he knew during an interview at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and a follow-up meeting four months later in Washington. She allegedly failed to properly disclose the contribution received at a fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Defense attorneys said the FBI “installed” Fortenberry after a national investigation into foreign money funneled to members of Congress failed. They said his mistake was voluntarily meeting with agents and prosecutors and suggested he suffered from memory problems.
Celeste Fortenberry, the lawmaker’s wife, testified Thursday that her husband hated making fundraising calls and was often on “automatic pilot” when making them.
The central call in the case is one between the doctor who held the fundraiser for Fortenberry at his Los Angeles home in 2016, Dr. Elias Ayoub, and Fortenberry.
Ayoub told Fortenberry during the June 2018 call recorded by the FBI that he distributed $30,000 to friends and family who attended the fundraiser so they could write checks for Fortenberry’s campaign.
He said the money had been provided by an associate of theirs and likely came from Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire living in Paris. Chagoury admitted in 2019 to funneling $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.
The three men in the alleged scheme to funnel the money to Fortenberry were all of Lebanese descent and had ties to In Defense of Christians, a Fortenberry-supported nonprofit dedicated to combating religious persecution in the Middle East.
Fortenberry asked Ayoub over the phone to organize another fundraiser with supporters of his cause.
In 2019, Fortenberry denied to FBI agents that he received funds from a foreign national or through so-called conduit contributions, where the money was distributed to fictitious donors.
Defense attorney John Littrell said the recording of the call only showed what was heard on Ayoub’s end and not what was heard by Fortenberry, who had poor cell phone reception.
If Fortenberry had missed just three crucial words, he may have missed what Ayoub was trying to tell him about where the money came from, Littrell said. Fortenberry’s failure to remember the call more than a year later was understandable, he said.
“This is a memory test that we would all fail,” Littrell said.
The government misled Fortenberry about the purpose of visiting his home, telling him it was a national security issue, essentially ambushing him and his family, Littrell said. Prosecutors then packaged the statements to make them appear more damning, using things Fortenberry said and left out to make them more damning, he said.
Littrell said the $36,000 his client raised in Los Angeles — much of it illegally — was a drop in the bucket for a congressman in an uncompetitive district with a healthy war fund.
“Do you think he would put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had $1.5 million?” Littrell said. “That is not possible.”