LOS ANGELES (CN) — A former attorney for Congressman Jeff Fortenberry testified he believed the Nebraska Republican was to be "sized up" as a potential government witness when he agreed to a voluntary interview with federal prosecutors in 2019 about his interactions with a Parisian billionaire and donations to his campaign.
Trey Gowdy, himself a former GOP congressman and now a Fox News host, testified Wednesday in Los Angeles, where Fortenberry, 61, is on trial on charges he concealed illegal campaign donations from Gilbert Chagoury and lied to the FBI when they interviewed him on two occasions about what he knew about the donations he received at a 2016 Southern California fundraiser.
"My understanding is that they wanted to evaluate Jeff Fortenberry as a witness," Gowdy told the jury. "It was to assist the federal government in their investigation."
Fortenberry's defense called Gowdy after the government rested its case earlier Wednesday. The former federal prosecutor from South Carolina had left the House in 2019, and Fortenberry sought his advice after the FBI had come to his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, in March of that year to question him about Chagoury and the LA fundraiser.
Fortenberry claims he was set up by the FBI. The host of the 2016 fundraiser testified this week that he became an informant for the FBI because he felt remorseful about lying to them at first and that he had agreed to tell Fortenberry during a recorded phone call in 2018 that $30,000 of the $36,000 raised at the event had been a cash gift that probably had come from Chagoury. The host then distributed the money among his friends and relatives so that they could write checks for Fortenberry's reelection campaign.
Under U.S. election law it's illegal for a foreign national like Chagoury to donate to federal campaigns, as well as to donate money in the name of a straw man. In 2021, Chagoury, 76, paid $1.8 million to resolve charges that he, with the assistance of others, made about $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four U.S. politicians running for federal office.
Gowdy helped arrange the July 2019 interview in Washington in which Fortenberry told federal prosecutors and investigators that he wasn't aware at the time that any donations at the LA fundraiser had been illegal and that he still wasn't aware at the time of the interview that they had been.
"That would be horrifying," Fortenberry said in a segment of the interview played in court, when it is brought up that the host of the fundraiser had told him in the 2018 phone call that $30,000 in cash had been provided do donate to his campaign.
"It was a combination of shock and anger," Gowdy said in describing Fortenberry's reaction at the time.
Fortenberry wanted to return the money immediately that day, Gowdy testified, but was persuaded not to do that because it might hurt the investigation if the donors got their money back. Instead, Fortenberry ended up donating the $30,000 to two charities.
According to Fortenberry's lawyers, the congressman had just returned from an overseas trip to Africa when he was first interviewed by the FBI in Nebraska and that he had been exhausted at the time of the unannounced visit by the investigators. That's why he may not have been able to recollect details of the recorded call the previous year in which the host of the fundraiser made him aware of the illegal donation, they said. Fortenberry may not have accurately heard or understood what the host told him during the 10-minute call on his cellphone, they argued.
Earlier Wednesday, the defense called Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who in 2014 had worked on a House resolution with Fortenberry that called for urgent, international intervention in the prosecution of religious minorities in northern Iraq by the Islamic State group.
Eshoo told the jury that Fortenberry was an honorable man who brought integrity to what he does.
"His word is always good, and I can't say that about all members of Congress," the Democrat from California testified.Follow @edpettersson
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