LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Southern California physician told the FBI about illegal campaign donations he arranged for Congressman Jeff Fortenberry because he had a guilty conscience and wanted to tell the truth.
Dr. Elias Ayoub told jurors in federal court Monday that when FBI agents came to his house in August 2016, they weren't even interested in the fundraiser he had hosted earlier that year in Los Angeles for the Nebraska Republican. Instead, they asked him about illegal contributions he had arranged to the campaigns of other U.S. politicians, including 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on behalf of Nigeria-born, Paris-based billionaire Gilbert Chagoury.
Ayoub, who described himself as a very religious man, testified that after he lied to the FBI about the illegal donations he handled for Chagoury, he couldn't sleep and asked his daughter to find him lawyer. At an interview at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles the following month, he told investigators about the money he had donated as a straw man for Chagoury to other campaigns as well as about the fundraiser for Fortenberry.
"I felt very ashamed about what I did," Ayoub, 77, said. "That did not represent me."
Fortenberry, a nine-term congressman representing Nebraska's 1st District, stands accused of concealing the illegal contributions from Chagoury once he was made aware of them in 2018 and lying to federal investigators on two occasions when he was interviewed the following year. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each of the three charges.
The congressman and Chagoury, who is of Christian-Lebanese descent, became acquainted because they are both deeply involved in advocating for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. In 2014, Chagoury funded the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based nonprofit, where Fortenberry was one of the speakers. Ayoub, who also is a Christian originally from Lebanon, served on the organization's board and testified that he first met Fortenberry at the 2014 event.
In 2015, the founder and former president of In Defense of Christians, Toufic Baaklini, asked Ayoub to host a fundraiser for Fortenberry in LA because "he's a very good man," Ayoub told the jurors.
Baaklini, who has worked for Chagoury as a consultant and has testified the billionaire is like a brother to him, also told Ayoub that he was going to give him money that he should distribute to some of his friends so they could make donations for Fortenberry's reelection campaign. Ayoub said that in early 2016, he and his wife picked up Baaklini at a hotel to attend mass and Baaklini had a brown bag with $30,000 with him. After mass, they went to lunch and left the money in the car when they dropped it with the valet.
"I was very nervous about it," Ayoub said.
Although Baaklini didn't say so, Ayoub testified he assume the money had come from Chagoury because of his past relationship with the billionaire, whom he had known since around 1979 and who for a while also had a house in Beverly Hills.
"I knew it was illegal but I was too blinded by the events in the Middle East — the persecution of the Christians," Ayoub said.
Months after the fundraiser, where $30,000 of the total $36,000 collected had come indirectly from Chagoury, the FBI showed up unannounced at Ayoub's home to question him about his relationship with the billionaire and about illegal donations to three campaigns — but not about Fortenberry.
In 2021, Chagoury, 76, paid $1.8 million to resolve allegations that he, with the assistance of others, made about $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four U.S. politicians running for federal office. As a foreign national, Chagoury can't make campaign contributions though the billionaire philanthropist has legally donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Family Foundation and is reportedly a good friend of former president Bill Clinton.
The investigation of Fortenberry didn't gain traction until 2018, when the congressman texted Ayoub that he wanted to have a call with him. Ayoub informed the FBI and the agency recorded the calls. In the first call, Fortenberry asked about the possibility of another fundraiser in LA — a call for which the FBI only asked the doctor to hear Fortenberry out.
At the second call, however, Ayoub had been coached to put Fortenberry on notice that the bulk of the donations at the 2016 fundraiser had been illegal. On four occasions, he broached the subject with Fortenberry, telling him that they likely wouldn't be able to raise as much money as before because $30,000 in cash had come from Baaklini and probably from Chagoury.
Federal prosecutors say that once Fortenberry knew the donations were illegal, he neither disclosed this to the Federal Election Commission nor disgorge the money as required by law. Instead, the government claims, he lied to investigators about what he been told about the origin of the funds.
Fortenberry's attorney have argued there's no evidence that in the 2018 phone call he received on his cellphone, he heard or understood what Ayoub told him. They have also said the congressman was entrapped by the prosecution regarding his recollection of a 10-minute phone call a year later.Follow @edpettersson
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