Longtime GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was convicted Thursday on multiple felony counts of lying to investigators about an illegal $30,000 campaign donation, and he now faces up to 15 years in prison.
Fortenberry, who has represented a district in eastern Nebraska since 2005, was found guilty on two counts of making false statements to authorities and another of concealing information, charges that each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison plus fines, according to the Associated Press.
The charges stemmed from allegations that Fortenberry accepted a $30,000 donation from Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, which was funneled through donors at a campaign fundraiser in Los Angeles in 2016.
Chagoury, a real estate and construction mogul, has been involved in American politics for decades: He donated hundreds of thousands to a voter registration group tied to the Democratic National Committee during Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign, and later donated at least $1 million to the Clinton Foundation. Chagoury was also closely tied to Nigerian leader Sani Abacha during Abacha’s military dictatorship from 1993 to 1998.
Fortenberry wasn’t the only member of Congress implicated in the “straw donor” scheme. Chagoury agreed to pay the Justice Department a $1.8 million fine last March to settle allegations that he gave $180,000 total to people in the U.S. marked for donations to four different federal candidates—including Fortenberry—between 2012 and 2016. Politico reported last year that the $180,000 matches up with donations to Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaigns as well as congressional campaigns of Fortenberry, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, and former Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, all Republicans.
The co-host of the Fortenberry 2016 fundraiser began cooperating with authorities in September 2016 and told them about the donations. Federal investigators alleged that during a June 2018 phone call, Fortenberry was told by the fundraiser co-host that the 2016 donation “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury,” but he did not file an amended campaign finance report. Later, Fortenberry—knowing where the donation came from—made false statements during two 2019 interviews with investigators and prosecutors.
During the trial, Fortenberry’s wife testified that he was often distracted and didn’t remember the day he met her, and also that he “loathed” fundraising calls, going on “autopilot” when he was on them. The jury returned the verdict in less than two hours.
“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,” U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Tracy Wilkison said in a statement following Fortenberry’s conviction. “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.”
Fortenberry will be sentenced in June, but after the verdict on Thursday, he reportedly maintained his innocence and said he would appeal.
“I’m getting so many beautiful messages from people literally all around the world, who’ve been praying for us and pulling for us,” Fortenberry told reporters.
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