This story originally appeared in the Nebraska Examiner.
Editor’s note: This report was updated at 9 p.m. CDT Tuesday.
LOS ANGELES — Two FBI agents told jurors Tuesday that U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was “inconsistent” and that they suspected he lied in two interviews probing illegal, “conduit” political contributions from a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire.
Special Agent James O’Leary testified that he believed the Republican congressman provided false statements to him about three key issues during a March 23, 2019, interview at the congressman’s Lincoln home.
Later in Tuesday, Edward Choe, who became the FBI’s lead agent in a probe they called “Operation Titan’s Grip,” said the 61-year-old Fortenberry gave more than one “inconsistent” statement during a July 2019 interview about his knowledge of the $30,000 he was given at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016 — money that was funneled through “straw men” and originated with Gilbert Chagoury, a shadowy billionaire living in Paris.
Giving political donations through a “straw man” or conduits is illegal, as are political donations from foreigners.
In the surprise interview at his Lincoln home, Fortenberry was asked more than once if he was aware of whether he had ever received donations from any foreign national, or through conduits.
He was also asked if he was aware that Toufic Baaklini — the head of a Washington, D.C., group called “In Defense of Christians” — had ever provided money for a fundraiser and had directed others to give him that money as political contributions.
“No. I’m not aware of that,” Fortenberry responded.
June 2018 phone call
Prosecutor Jamari Buxton asked O’Leary on Tuesday if that made him suspect that Fortenberry’s answers to those questions were false.
“I suspected they were false,” the FBI agent responded.
“Why?” Buxton asked.
Because, O’Leary said, Fortenberry had been told in a year earlier, in a June 4, 2018, call with the host of the L.A. fundraiser, that the $30,000 had been given to him by Baaklini, to be distributed by several friends and relatives of the host, and that the funds “probably” originated Chagoury.
As that testimony unfolded in a downtown L.A. courthouse, at least a handful of jurors on the panel of eight women and four men scribbled notes on notepads.
Tuesday was the fifth day of the federal trial of Fortenberry, who is charged with lying to agents in those two interviews and with attempting to conceal the L.A. donations by not amending his federal campaign reports. He faces up to five years in prison on each felony count.
The two interviews in 2019, as well as the June 2018 phone call informing Fortenberry of the illegal gifts, are the bedrock of the prosecution’s case.
Forgot what was said
Fortenberry’s defense attorneys, meanwhile, have offered several explanations as to why the nine-term congressman didn’t recall the 2018 phone call warnings — that he didn’t hear them, didn’t comprehend their meaning or couldn’t remember what was said.
On Tuesday, his defense team said they also intend to introduce evidence that Fortenberry was exhausted and “jet lagged” during the March 23, 2019, interview, which occurred at 9 p.m., a day after he had returned from a trip to Kenya and after he’d spent his first day back touring epic flooding in Nebraska.
At one point during the Lincoln interview, Fortenberry did convey trouble. “I’m a little hard-pressed because you’re making me go off memory,” he said.
The defense has maintained that FBI agents “set up” the congressman for an indictment by having Ayoub — who by then was working with the FBI — feed Fortenberry information that the L.A. contributions were illegal and then charging Fortenberry with not recalling it. They called it a “flawed memory test.”
On Tuesday, jurors got to hear Fortenberry, in his own words, respond to questions from federal investigators during the two 2019 interviews. One was a 45-minute interview at his home, which agents clandestinely documented on video. The other was a two-hour interview that was captured on audiotape in Washington, D.C. Fortenberry had requested that interview to provide additional information.
Agent Choe said that during the Washington interrogation, investigators were chiefly interested in Fortenberry’s knowledge about the activities of Chagoury, Baaklini and L.A. surgeon Dr. Elias Ayoub, who were all involved with the group In Defense of Christians. That Washington-based group works to protect Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, a cause that had also drawn considerable work and support from Fortenberry, a devout Catholic.
Brown paper bag
Choe said investigators also were looking to see whether any tax violations had occurred and whether any “official actions” were prompted after Fortenberry received $30,000 from eight Lebanese-Americans at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles, using cash Baaklini had left for Dr. Ayoub in a brown paper bag.
During the Washington interview, Fortenberry said that he had netted between $30,000 and $40,000 at the L.A. fundraiser — something he hadn’t admitted in the earlier interview in Lincoln — and that he hadn’t expressed concerns about the 2016 event to his friend, Baaklini — something that later was found to be false.
The congressman also told investigators that the L.A. fundraiser, while a “substantially bigger” event than normal, was pretty “standard” — which differed from what his professional fundraiser testified earlier this week and from what Fortenberry had been told in the 2018 phone call from Dr. Ayoub.
Did that heighten your concerns about the congressman, Choe was asked.
Yes, he responded. Fortenberry had been advised that lying to the FBI was a crime, Choe said, but provided inconsistent statements anyway.
“If they go ahead and lie, it begs the question, why are they lying?” the agent said.
Fortenberry called police
Court adjourned before the defense could cross-examine Choe. But earlier in the day, Fortenberry’s team got a chance to try to discredit the testimony by Agent O’Leary about the Lincoln interview.
Defense lawyers introduced evidence that, initially, the FBI agents identified themselves as being “out of Omaha,” instead of from California, and said they were doing a “background investigation” on a matter related to “national security.”
O’Leary testified that FBI agents often use “a ruse” so they can get an interview and said they often don’t announce that they are coming so that subjects cannot concoct a “cover story.”
Prosecutors pointed out that it took 32 minutes into the 45-minute interview before Fortenberry identified who Ayoub was and said the L.A. surgeon had hosted a fundraiser for him. In the Washington interview four months later, Fortenberry provided many more details about Ayoub.
Defense attorney Ryan Fraser pointed out that despite Fortenberry’s objections to the “lack of professionalism” of the agents, he gave them a 45-minute interview. He added that, in contrast to the agent’s portrayal that Fortenberry had no concerns about the 2016 fundraiser, the congressman had voiced concerns about “a couple of people” associated with the L.A. event but the comment was cut off by FBI agents.
‘I’m not placing him’
Initially, during the March interview, Fortenberry, after being shown a photo of Ayoub, said “I’m not placing him.” The congressman also said that Ayoub — who hosted the 2016 fundraiser — “may have” given him a political contribution but that he would have to double-check.
“I don’t know what you’re digging for, but I’m trying to help you,” Fortenberry said midway through the interview.
Defense attorneys later displayed the photograph of Dr. Ayoub, suggesting that the congressman might not have recognized the 77-year-old physician because in the photo, he was much younger looking and wasn’t wearing eyeglasses.
When the congressman was asked directly during the Lincoln interview if he was aware of any illegal campaign contributions going to his campaign, he responded, “At this point, you’re starting to accuse me of something. … You’re not making me comfortable.”
“We ought to call a timeout,” Fortenberry added. But he soon continued the interview.
It was an unusual interrogation, O’Leary said, because two Lincoln police officers were also present. Fortenberry said he had called local police because he was concerned about the unannounced visit from the FBI agents and said they had wrongly stated they were from Omaha. The officers checked the FBI agents’ badges and were present throughout the interview.
‘Lack of professionalism’
“We’re going to have a conversation before we have a conversation,” Fortenberry told the FBI agents before the Lincoln interview began, as a dog barked rapidly in the background.
Fortenberry also ordered at least two stops in the interrogation in Washington, D.C.
One came after he was asked what his reaction would have been if Dr. Ayoub had told him that Baaklini had provided the $30,000 for the L.A. fundraiser.
“That would have been horrifying,” Fortenberry responded on the audiotape.
But that was “inconsistent,” Choe said, with the congressman’s actual reaction when Ayoub had told him three times during a June 4, 2018, phone call with Fortenberry, that Baaklini had provided the cash. During that phone call, Fortenberry kept talking after the warnings and asked for another L.A. fundraiser for his 2018 campaign.
Evidence introduced Tuesday also showed that Fortenberry didn’t “disgorge” the $30,000 — as election law requires —when he learned it was illegal after the 2018 call or after the first interview in 2019. It wasn’t until later in 2019, after the second interview with FBI agents, that the congressman gave away the $30,000 to two charities. Even then, Choe said, he didn’t list it as a “disgorged” donation, as is required.
Choe testified that Fortenberry appeared “bothered and agitated” at times during the Washington interview.
But during court proceedings Tuesday, the congressman calmly watched the testimony from the defense table.
It is unclear whether Fortenberry will testify in his own defense. The prosecution is expected to wrap up its case Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, who has often urged the participating attorneys to “move on,” said he now expects the jury to get the case on Thursday or Friday.