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U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, 61, was charged last year after being interviewed by two FBI agents who were investigating Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury who gave Fortenberry a $30,000 campaign contribution at a Los Angeles fundraiser before the 2016 election and has donated to other campaigns.
He was convicted by a jury on Thursday on one count of falsifying and concealing material facts and two counts of making false statements.
The nine-term congressman’s defense has maintained his innocence, arguing that the investigators knew he was unaware of the donation at the time but directed an informant to feed him the information in a 10-minute recorded call with the intention of trying to prosecute him. They claimed the FBI used false pretenses a year later to interview him and charge him after he couldn’t remember the recorded conversation.
Dr. Elias Ayoub, who hosted Fortenberry in Los Angeles in 2016, confessed in a recorded 2018 call with the congressman that he distributed $30,000 to friends and relatives who attended the fundraiser so they could write checks to Fortenberry’s campaign. During the call in 2018, Ayoub had been cooperating with the FBI. Ayoub said the money probably came from Chagoury who admitted in 2019 to funneling $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.
In 2019, Fortenberry, unaware that the call was being recorded, told the FBI that he didn’t receive any foreign donations or so-called conduit contributions, where the money was distributed to straw donors.
Fortenberry “chose to conceal the truth, he chose to lie to federal investigators when they came to ask question [sic]… believing his status and privilege as a congressman would shield him from his choices,” prosecutor Susan Har said during closing arguments, according to KETV in Omaha.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison.
Fortenberry represents Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District and is running for re-election this year. The charges last October have divided conservatives in his district over the long-term representative first elected in 2004.
He won his 2020 race with 59% against the Democrat running in the race and the district is seen as reliably conservative.