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Trial over illegal campaign contribution from Parisian billionaire kicks off Wednesday

Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry stands accused of concealing illegal campaign contributions when he became aware of them and lying to the FBI.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry faces a criminal trial beginning Wednesday on charges of concealing and lying about campaign contributions from a Nigerian-born, Paris-based billionaire in 2016.

Fortenberry, 61, stands accused of concealing the illegal contributions from Gilbert Charougy 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 as long as five years in prison on each of the three charges.

The nine-term congressman, representing Nebraska's 1st District, will be tried in Los Angeles federal court because that is where the 2016 fundraiser occurred. His lawyers tried unsuccessfully to have the trial moved to Nebraska, citing Fortenberry's "compelling need" to have the case tried as soon as possible because he faces challengers for his House seat "from both the left and the right" in the May 10 primary.

According to the government, Fortenberry and Charougy came to know each other around 2014 because both were involved in advocating for Christian minorities in the Middle East. Fortenberry had sponsored House resolutions condemning the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, and Chagoury, of Christian Lebanese descent, was supporting In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes the interest of Christians in Middle Eastern countries.

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.

Federal prosecutors claim that in 2015, Fortenberry asked a U.S. associate of Chagoury to help him find contributors for his reelection campaign. Toufic Baaklini, who is now a government witness, helped set up a fundraising event at an LA restaurant and funneled $30,000 from Chagoury to Fortenberry's campaign through so-called conduit contributors whose names were used in Federal Election Commission filings.

The host of the 2016 fundraiser also started cooperating with the FBI and will also testify at the trial. In 2018, this person, identified as Individual H in court filings, started recording telephone calls with Fortenberry in which the congressman was soliciting another fundraiser in LA. In one of those calls, H told Fortenberry that $30,000 out of the $36,000 raised at the 2016 event had been provided by Baaklini and probably had come from Chagoury.

Fortenberry "did not express surprise or concern or seek clarification about Individual H’s admissions that illegal foreign cash had been funneled to his campaign," according to the prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. "Instead, defendant continued to push for the second fundraiser, explaining that he hoped to 'have some continuation of the fine generosity' that he had received from the first (illicitly funded) fundraiser."

The congressman neither amended his FEC disclosures for the 2016 fundraiser nor disgorged the money at the time, federal prosecutors say. Instead, they say Fortenberry denied that he had been told that the money had come from Baaklini or Chagoury in interviews with the FBI.

In court filings, the government suggested Fortenberry may have wanted to hide the fact that Chagoury had been illegally funding his reelection campaign because Hillary Clinton had been lambasted by Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign over the billionaire's donations to the Clinton foundation. Chagoury had been briefly on the U.S. no-fly list for individuals suspected of links with terrorist groups and had been denied a U.S. visa in 2015.

In a 2016 lawsuit Charougy filed against the FBI, he denied having any connections with terrorist organizations, specifically Hezbollah.

"Gilbert Chagoury has never provided any financial or any other support to Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization," according to the lawsuit. "He has supported organizations providing food and shelter to Christians turned into refugees by the civil war in Syria, but by no stretch of the imagination may he be considered the source of assistance to terrorist organizations."

Fortenberry has said the prosecution's case against him was a "setup." His attorneys say the charges against him don't pertain to what happened in 2016 but are only based on whether in 2019 he accurately recalled a 10-minute telephone call he had with the informant the year before.

"The government’s investigation revealed that Congressman Fortenberry was unaware of any illegal foreign or conduit contributions to his 2016 campaign," his lawyers argued in a court filing. "With no basis to charge the congressman with a crime, the government instead concocted one."

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