A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, accusing him of lying to the FBI and concealing information from federal agents who were investigating campaign contributions funneled to him from a Nigerian billionaire.
The U.S. attorney’s office announced that the grand jury in Los Angeles had indicted the nine-term Republican on one charge of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Fortenberry is expected to appear for an arraignment Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Los Angeles.
The indictment stems from an FBI investigation into $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.
The contributions were funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016 and went to four U.S. politicians, including $30,200 to Fortenberry in 2016. Using an analysis of federal election records, Politico has identified the other three Republican recipients as former U.S. Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska in 2014; Representative Darrell Issa of California in 2014; and Senator Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign.
Federal authorities haven’t alleged that any of the other three campaigns or candidates were aware that the donations originated with Chagoury.
Chagoury, who lives in Paris, admitted to the crime in 2019, agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and is cooperating with federal authorities. Prosecutors have said Chagoury made some of the illegal contributions to politicians from smaller states because he thought the amounts would be more noticeable and give him better access. He also drew attention years ago for giving more than $1 million to the Clinton Foundation.
The indictment alleges that a co-host of the 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles told Fortenberry that the donations probably did come from Chagoury, but Fortenberry never filed an amended campaign report with the Federal Election Commission as required. It says he later “made false and misleading statements” to federal investigators during a March 23, 2019, interview at his home in Lincoln.
According to the indictment, Fortenberry falsely told investigators he wasn’t aware of an associate of Chagoury being involved in illegal contributions. He also allegedly said that his donors were publicly disclosed, and he wasn’t aware of any contributions from a foreign national, which is illegal.
In a second interview in Washington in July 2019, the indictment says Fortenberry denied that he was aware of any illicit donation made during the 2016 fundraiser.
‘Shocked’ and ‘stunned’
In a YouTube video posted Monday night, Fortenberry said he was “shocked” and “stunned” by the allegations and asked his supporters to rally behind him. Knowingly making false statements to a federal agent is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
“We will fight these charges,” he said in the video, filmed inside a 1963 pickup truck with his wife, Celeste, and their dog, against a backdrop of corn. “I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew. But we need your help.”
Fortenberry’s campaign has insisted that he didn’t know the donations, which the campaign received during a fundraiser in Los Angeles, originated with Chagoury.
Fortenberry said FBI agents from California came to his home after he had been out dealing with a major storm that had just hit Nebraska. He said they questioned him about the contributions then and in a follow-up interview.
“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” he said.
Fortenberry represents the state’s 1st Congressional District, a heavily Republican area that includes Lincoln and parts of several Omaha suburbs, as well as surrounding farmland and small towns in eastern Nebraska.
According to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office, no other Nebraska congressman or U.S. senator has been indicted since at least 1901.
Fortenberry was first elected to the seat in 2004. He won his last election in 2020 with 60% of the vote and has generally defeated Democratic challengers by lopsided margins.
His statement that he expected to be indicted was first reported by the Omaha World-Herald.
Celeste Fortenberry said her husband spoke with the agents voluntarily, without a lawyer, because he was under the impression that the agents needed his help to get to the bottom of the case.
She said he later called his friend, attorney and former congressman Trey Gowdy, for legal representation. She said her husband sat for another interview with agents in Washington and was repeatedly assured that he was not a target of the investigation.