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Jeff Fortenberry’s trial looks at congressman’s work for ‘The Cause’

The congressman's close ties with In Defense of Christians are said to be at the root of the illegal campaign contributions.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The first day of testimony in U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry's trial over his alleged concealment of illegal campaign contributions looked at the passion he shared with a Nigerian-born, Parisian-based billionaire for protecting the interests of Christians in the Middle East.

In Defense of Christians, referred to as "The Cause" by its members, is a Washington-based nonprofit, initially bankrolled by Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who is of Christian-Lebanese descent. The organization has frequently lauded the Nebraska Republican's efforts on behalf of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, and he was the co-chair of the organization's 2020 summit.

It also has been a reservoir of political support and campaign contributions for Fortenberry, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamari Buxton in his opening statement Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles.

Fortenberry's connections with In Defense of Christians organized a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles that raised $36,000 for his reelection campaign, one of his most successful fundraising events ever, according to the prosecutor. However, of that $36,000, $30,000 had come from Chagoury and was donated in the name of straw donors. As a foreign national, Chagoury is not legally allowed to make contributions to elections. Fortenberry, 61, is on trial for concealing the donations once he was told where they had come from and lying to federal investigators about what he knew about them.

"This is a case about choices," Buxton said. Fortenberry's choices "led him down an illegal path of lies and deceptions."

Fortenberry's attorney, Glen Summers, described the congressman as a devout Catholic and a champion of religious minorities. During the same weekend that Fortenberry attended the 2016 fundraiser, he also attended a gala luncheon in Beverly Hills where he was awarded a church knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory, which Summers told the jury in his opening statement, entitles the congressman to ride a horse in church.

At the time of that fundraiser, the FBI had already started to look into Chagoury, who also had a house in Beverly Hills, as part of an investigation into election fraud and bribery, according to Todd Carter, an FBI agent who was the first witness to testify. The agency was also looking at In Defense of Christians and whether it paid any bribes or gratuities to U.S. politicians in exchange for "officials acts," Carter testified.

The FBI found a cooperator in Dr. Elias Ayoub, a Los Angeles-area physician who had hosted the 2016 fundraiser for Fortenberry and who had received the $30,000 in cash that came from Chagoury for the reelection campaign.

Although, Fortenberry hadn't been a target for the FBI at first, that changed in 2018 when he reached out to Ayoub with a request to host another fundraiser for him in LA. The FBI recorded a subsequent call Ayoub made to Fortenberry in which the doctor was coached to reveal to the congressman the origin of the $30,000 to test his reaction.

When Ayoub first mentions on the call that a new fundraiser might not yield as much money as the first one because in 2016 Toufic Baaklini, the founder of In Defense of Christians and an associate of Chagoury, had given him $30,000 in cash for the reelection campaign, Fortenberry is heard saying "that's no problem."

"Probably the money came from Gilbert Chagoury," Ayoub then tells Fortenberry in the recorded call played to the jury. "Because he's so grateful for your support, you know, 'the cause.'"

Fortenberry expressed no shock or surprise on the recording when he's told where the campaign donations came from, and instead went through some political efforts made on behalf of Christians in the Middle East. And when Ayoub suggests that maybe Baaklini can ask Chagoury to give some money they can donate to Fortenberry, the congressman's response is "I can certainly discuss that with him."

Summers on cross-examination questioned the FBI agent about whether he could verify that Fortenberry actually heard and understood what Ayoub was telling him on the call. In his opening statement, Summers suggested that Fortenberry wasn't listening carefully.

"It was a routine fundraising call out of the blue," Summers told the jurors. "What if the connection was bad? What if he wasn't paying attention?"

The trial will continue Friday.

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