GOP Rep. Fortenberry pleads not guilty to lying about Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire's campaign donation

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Jeff Fortenberry
Jeff Fortenberry

LOS ANGELES – Longtime Rep. Jeff Fortenberry pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court to charges of lying to authorities who were investigating a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire who they say funneled money to the congressman's re-election campaign.

The Nebraska Republican, who has served in Congress since 2005, made the plea via video conference during his first appearance after being charged with repeatedly lying and misleading investigators during an inquiry involving Gilbert Chagoury. Prosecutors say Chagoury arranged to contribute $30,000 to the lawmaker's 2016 re-election campaign through intermediaries, even though such contributions from foreign nationals are illegal.

In the court appearance, Fortenberry was ordered to pos a $50,000 bond and instructed not to have contact with any witnesses or victims in the case. The list of witnesses read aloud in court by prosecutors Wednesday include//d// multiple current and former members of Fortenberry's staff, including his chief of staff, a policy advisor and a communications aide.

Fortenberry's attorney, John Littrell, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Rozella Oliver he planned to ask the case to be dismissed "at our first opportunity" for a lack of venue. The charges were filed in Los Angeles, where the donations were allegedly provided to his campaign at a fundraiser in early 2016. Littrell told the court he believed the charges should have been filed in Nebraska, where Fortenberry lives, or Washington, D.C.

"This is someone who has served in Congress for 16 years," Littrell said of his client. "He is respected by his peers. He has a position of great responsibility and he has served his country with dignity."

More: Nebraska Congressman Fortenberry charged with lying to feds in campaign finance inquiry

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said the charges point to the heart of American democracy.

He said the case is about a "U.S. congressperson who took an oath to the Constitution and violated that oath in a significantly disturbing way by repeatedly lying, misleading and concealing from a federal investigation that goes to the heart of our democracy: our election, including foreign influence."

Each of the three criminal counts filed against Fortenberry carry a maximum punishment of five years in prison. The Nebraska Republican has said he would aggressively challenge charges.

"We're shocked; we're stunned," Fortenberry, 60, said in a video posted to his YouTube Monday, a day before before the charges were announced publicly.

Earlier Wednesday, Fortenberry temporarily resigned from serving on his congressional committees, as the rules of the House Republican conference require.

Littrell told the court the accusations lodged against Fortenberry have "tarnished his reputation" and are "completely out of character."

Chagoury, the Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in Los Angeles in 2019 in which he admitted funneling $180,000 to four different political candidates. As part of the agreement, Chagoury, one of Africa's richest men, also agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.

According to federal prosecutors, a co-host of the 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser, identified in court documents as "Individual H", informed the the FBI and IRS of the scheme. The information prompted the focus on Fortenberry and whether the congressman was aware that the contributions were prohibited.

In a June 2018 telephone call, according to prosecutors, the informant allegedly told Fortenberry that a Chagoury associate had provided him with $30,000 and that the money was distributed to others at the fundraiser to conceal the actual source of the funds.

"Despite learning of the illegal campaign contributions, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission," according to court documents.

Fortenberry is accused of making "false and misleading statements" during two separate interviews with federal investigators in 2019, including that he was not aware of the illicit contributions and the scheme to conceal them.

At the second interview, on July 18, 2019, Fortenberry again allegedly denied knowledge of the scheme, stating that he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illegal contributions from the pre-arranged intermediaries.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rep. Fortenberry pleads not guilty to lying about campaign donation

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