etails of how a United States congressman landed in trouble for receiving a campaign donation from a Nigerian businessman of Lebanese descent have emerged.
Jeff Fortenberry, representing the 1st congressional district of Nebraska, took an illegal donation of $30,000 from the Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, in contravention of the U.S. federal election law in 2016.
U.S. federal law prohibits contributions, donations, expenditures, including independent expenditures, and disbursements solicited, directed, received or made directly or indirectly by or from foreign nationals in connection with any federal, state or local election.
Mr Fortenberry ended up being convicted by the U.S. District Court for Central District Court for California, a development that forced him to resign his position in March while he awaits sentencing in June this year.
“It has been my honour to serve with you in the United States House of Representatives,” he said in the letter.
“Due to the difficulties of my current circumstances, I can no longer effectively serve,” he wrote.
Although felons are eligible to run for and serve in Congress, Mr Fortenberry’s re-election bid has been hit by his conviction and resignation.
Findings from a joint criminal investigation carried out by federal authorities showed that Mr Fortenberry received “illegal political campaign contributions.”
The investigative authorities comprised the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Los Angeles and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
Their findings of the investigations are contained in a court filing detailing the three charges filed against Mr Fortenberry on October 19, 2021.
The court document obtained by PREMIUM TIMES showed that Mr Chagoury made the $30,000 contribution to Mr Fortenberry’s campaign “using other individuals as conduits, to defendant Jefferey Fortenberry’s 2016 congressional campaign.”
According to the court document, Mr Chagoury gave the money to Toufic Baaklini (a conduit) in cash.
Mr Baaklini then gave the donation ($30,000) in cash to Elias Ayoub, who hosted a political fundraiser in 2016 for Mr Fortenberry, who at the time was unaware of the source of the money.
Mr Ayoub recruited persons to donate to Mr Fortenberry’s campaign and reimbursed them using Mr Chagoury’s cash from Mr Baaklini. Mr Ayoub made campaign contributions totalling $30,200 to Mr Fortenberry’s campaign fund.
However, in 2018, Mr Fortenberry approached Mr Ayoub for another fundraiser. During their conversation, Mr Ayoub informed the former that the donation at the previous fundraiser was from Gilbert Chagoury.
When questioned by law enforcement, Mr Fortenberry denied having knowledge of the donation from Mr Chagoury.
Unknown to Mr Fortenberry, Mr Ayoub was cooperating with law enforcement in conducting a federal criminal investigation into illegal political campaign contributions made by Mr Chagoury using other individuals as conduits, to federal candidates in the U.S.
Mr Fortenberry, 61, argued at his trial that prosecutors knew he did not know about the contribution but directed an informant to feed him the information in a 10-minute call with the intention of trying to prosecute him.
According to the court documents, despite being told by Mr Ayoub about the illegal donations, Mr Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the FEC regarding the 2016 Fundraiser.
He also did not return or otherwise try to disgorge the contributions from the 2016 Fundraiser after learning on the 2018 call with Mr Ayoub that they were illegal contributions. Rather, it was not until after law enforcement interviewed him in July 2019 that he revealed the contributions.
Mr Fortenberry also falsely stated that the individuals who contributed to the 2016 Fundraiser were all publicly disclosed, despite knowing his campaign had never disclosed the names of individuals who were the true sources of the conduit contributions at the 2016 Fundraiser.
According to his attorneys, FBI agents used false pretences to interview Mr Fortenberry nearly a year later and indicted him when he failed to recall all of the details from the conversation.
The U.S. Attorney-General’s office charged Mr Fortenberry with three counts in September 2021.
The first count alleged that from on or about June 4, 2018, to about July 18, 2019, Mr Fortenberry knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device, material facts concerning the campaign donation.
In the second count, it was alleged that on or about March 23, 2019, in an interview during the investigation, Mr Fortenberry “knowingly and willfully made materially false statements and representations knowing that these statements and representations were untrue.”
The prosecution alleged in the third count that on or about July 18, 2019, in an interview during investigations, Mr Fortenberry knowingly and willfully made false statements and representations knowing that the statements and representations were untrue.
Conviction and resignation
A jury of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California convicted him on all three counts of falsifying and concealing material facts and making false statements; each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence and fines.
On March 31, Mr Fortenberry resigned his position.
The court has set June 28, 2022, for sentencing.
Gilbert Chagoury, 75, is a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire businessman who is believed to currently reside in Paris, France.
He paid $1.8 million to resolve allegations that he, with the assistance of others, provided approximately $180,000 to individuals in the United States that was used to make contributions to four different federal political candidates, including Jeff Fortenberry, in the U.S. elections.
Mr Chagoury, a foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, admitted he intended these funds to be used to make contributions to these candidates. He further admitted to making illegal conduit contributions – causing campaign contributions to be made in the name of another individual.
According to a deferred prosecution agreement with the government, Mr Chagoury accepted responsibility for his role and conduct that resulted in violations of federal election contribution laws between June 2012 and March 2016 and agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation. Mr Chagoury entered into the agreement on October 19, 2019, and he paid the fine in December 2019.
Federal prosecutors entered into the deferred prosecution agreement considering, among other factors, Mr Chagoury’s unique assistance to the U.S. government, his payment of a fine, Mr Chagoury’s acceptance of responsibility for his actions, and his residence outside the United States.
Nigerian business interest
Mr Chagoury is a co-founder of the popular Eko hotel and suites in Lagos and also Hotel Presidential among other hospitality establishments run by the Chagoury Group in Nigeria.
Chagoury Group is behind the Eko Atlantic City, an entirely reclaimed coastal city built also in the upmarket Victoria Island area of Lagos and is reserved exclusively for the high net worth individuals and corporate entities including some embassies.
Chiamaka Okafor is a reporter at Premium Times in partnership with Report for the World, which matches local newsrooms with talented emerging journalists to report on under-covered issues around the globe.
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