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Catholic congressman charged with lying to federal investigators; denies accusations

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) / Office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry

Washington D.C., Oct 19, 2021 / 15:20 pm (CNA).

Catholic congressman Jeff Fortenberry on Tuesday was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of making false statements to federal investigators. 

The Twitter account for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced Oct. 19 the indictment charges. Fortenberry is charged with one count of “scheming to falsify and conceal material facts,” and two counts of “making false statements to federal investigators looking into illegal contributions to his 2016 campaign,” the account stated.

In an unlisted video on a YouTube page in his name, Fortenberry explained on Monday that he was visited at his home by FBI agents “about two and a half years ago” regarding contributions illegally made to his campaign by a foreign national. The contributions had been made “about five and a half years ago,” he said.

“They were FBI agents from California. I let them in my house, I answered their questions. Later, we went back and answered further questions,” Fortenberry recounted of his meetings. “I told them what I knew and what I understood.”

“They’ve accused me of lying to them, and are charging me with this,” he added.

He denied having lied to the FBI agents. “I did not lie to them, I told them what I knew,” he said. “We’re shocked. We’re stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. We thought we were trying to help. And so now we’ll have to fight.”

Under federal law, making false statements to federal investigators carries with it a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Fortenberry’s campaign office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNA on Tuesday afternoon.

Fortenberry is currently serving his ninth term in the U.S. House. A Catholic and a Republican, he has been outspoken on pro-life issues and on persecution of Middle Eastern Christians.

Earlier in October, Axios reported that a fundraising webpage had been created for Fortenberry’s legal defense fund. A spokesperson for Fortenberry’s office told Axios that the matter had to do with illegal contributions to his campaign orchestrated by a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury.

Over the course of three election cycles, Chagoury made a number of illegal contributions to four federal campaigns, according to the website OpenSecrets.

As a foreign national, he is prohibited from contributing to U.S. elections, but he used U.S. citizens as conduits for his money to reach campaigns and political groups, including Fortenberry’s campaign, as well as those of congressional candidates Lee Terry and Darrell Issa, and the Romney 2012 presidential campaign.

Chagoury paid $1.8 million to resolve allegations that he “provided approximately $180,000 to individuals in the United States” to contribute to four campaigns, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of California reported in March 2021.

According to the attorney’s office, Chagoury was assisted by Toufic Joseph Baaklini in making the illegal contributions. 

In a signed deferred prosecution agreement, Baaklini in March 2021 “admitted to giving $30,000 in cash provided by Chagoury to an individual at a restaurant in Los Angeles who, along with others, later made campaign contributions to the 2016 campaign of a U.S. congressman,” the attorney’s office stated. The Omaha World-Herald reported that Baaklini acted as a conduit for $30,000 in Chagoury’s donations to Fortenberry’s campaign in 2016.

According to Justice Department documents, Baaklini provided the $30,000 in Chagoury’s cash to an individual at a Los Angeles restaurant in January 2016; the individual hosted a fundraiser for “Federal Candidate D,” and at the event, recruited other individuals to make contributions to the candidate’s campaign in February 2016, totaling $30,200.

Baaklini talked to the candidate in February 2016, according to the Justice Department documents, where the candidate asked if “anything was wrong” with the fundraiser. After Baaklini replied “no,” the candidate said that “it all came from the same family.”

Chagoury was a major donor to the Clinton Foundation and helped finance the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians in September 2014, according to the Washington Free Beacon. He was denied entry into the United States in 2016 by the State Department, reportedly for his ties to Hezbollah, which is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.

“To be accused of this is extremely painful, and we are suffering greatly. We will fight these charges,” Fortenberry said, asking for prayers.

“Hopefully this all ends happily, for the sake of justice, for the sake of my own integrity, and for the sake of the American system. This is wrong at so many levels,” he said.