Fortenberry indictment tied to Middle East Christian advocates

News: Rep. Jeff Fortenberry

A Catholic U.S. Congressman from Nebraska has been charged with lying to federal investigators about an alleged scheme to launder campaign contributions from a foreign billionaire — a prominent Catholic philanthropist with ties to controversial charitable and business interests. 

The congressman has vowed to fight the charges, and asked supporters for prayers. 

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Rep. Jeff Fortenberry has represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005. He is accused of lying to the FBI during a 2019 investigation of illegal campaign contributions.

The Republican congressman has insisted he is innocent. He discussed the charges in a video released on YouTube October 18, the day before the Department of Justice announced his indictment.

“About five and a half years ago, a person from overseas illegally moved money to my campaign,” the congressman acknowledged. Americans were used to facilitate the contributions, Fortenberry said in his video.

“I didn’t know anything about this,” he added. 

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The story begins with a 2016 California fundraiser at which Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national who cannot legally make campaign contributions to U.S. politicians, used several Americans to channel $30,000 to Fortenberry’s re-election campaign.

It is illegal for American citizens to act as conduits for foreign campaign contributions, and illegal for U.S. politicians to knowingly receive such contributions.

Those directly involved in the scheme “were all caught and punished, thankfully,” the congressman said in his video. But “about two and a half years ago, I had a knock on my door on a weekend.” 

Fortenberry said FBI agents from California questioned him twice in 2019. Eventually, prosecutors alleged Fortenberry had been dishonest about his knowledge of the contributions.

“They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this,” the congressman said, adding that he and his wife were “shocked,” “stunned,” and “feel betrayed...to be accused of this is extremely painful, and we are suffering greatly.”

Fortenberry, who has an MA in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, has frequently spoken about his Catholic faith and has been an outspoken opponent of abortion. 

Fortenberry is not charged with involvement in the illegal contributions themselves.

Those began with Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire Catholic businessman and philanthropist who has been honored by several popes. At the 2016 fundraiser, Toufic Baaklini, a long-time associate of Chagoury, made arrangements for attendees to give $30,000 of Chagoury’s money to Fortenberry’s campaign.

The Justice Department says that Fortenberry was told in 2018 by an informant — the unnamed host of the California fundraiser — that the congressman’s campaign had received illegal contributions, arranged by Baaklini, and “probably” on behalf of Chagoury.

But when Fortenberry was questioned in 2019, he allegedly lied to FBI investigators about whether he knew money had been funneled to him illegally, and did not mention the phone call from the FBI’s informant.

That, the Justice Department says, is a crime.

A former federal prosecutor with knowledge of the case spoke with The Pillar on background. The attorney said that in his view, the Justice Department’s charge against Fortenberry is a stretch.

“I’m really concerned that in public corruption cases nationwide, the public integrity attorneys for the prosecution are just using this false statement stuff as the ‘coin of the realm.’ It’s really gotten so much use in recent years on both sides of the political aisle.”

On Fortenberry, “they’re not charging him with anything from the conduit contributions, they’re not saying he had knowledge at the time of the contributions of anything criminal.”

“They send an informant to talk to him, and they do a recorded phone call where the informant tells him after the fact that the money is problematic. And then they send the FBI to go interview him, and they say, ‘Gee, has anybody ever told you that the money is problematic?’ And that’s the lie in this case.”

But “it’s not a crime in itself just to be dishonest with an agent. It has to have some potential for harming an investigation,” the long-time prosecutor said.

In Fortenberry’s case, he said, it’s not clear the congressman was dishonest about material or relevant issues to the investigation. “It seems like they’re punishing a very natural tendency to keep confidential phone calls confidential, and that’s what he seems to be accused of.”

“I’m concerned that kind of on a global level, that settling for false statements stings is a bad pattern that we’re seeing across the country,” the attorney added.

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Chagoury and Baaklini both made deferred prosecution agreements with the Justice Department this year. Chagoury agreeed to pay $1.8 million, effectively conceding that he used American citizens as conduits to channel approximately $180,000 in contributions to Fortenberry and three other political candidates. Baaklini has also admitted to his role in distributing money to Fortenberry’s campaign on Chagoury’s behalf.

Chagoury was born in Nigeria, to Lebanese parents. According to his website, he started his career selling shoes, eventually building a multi-billion dollar business empire across a range of interests, including real estate development, agriculture, and telecoms. 

Chagoury maintains a keen interest in the fate of Christians in Lebanon, and across the Middle East, and has been a prolific supporter of charitable works in the region. He was instrumental in the creation of In Defense of Christians, an American-based advocacy group, of which he has served as honorary chairman, and Baaklini served as president.

Rep. Fortenberry has also been an outspoken advocate for persecuted Christians across the world, especially in the Middle East. In 2016, Fortenberry pushed successfully to see the U.S. State Department recognize the killing of Christians and other religious minorities by ISIS as a genocide. 

In Defense of Christians has called Fortenberry a “longtime Congressional Champion” of their work.

Chagoury has been honored by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis for his Catholic philanthropy, receiving the Order of St. Pius IX, the most senior papal order of chivalry, in 2016.

He has also donated more than $1 million to the Clinton Foundation.

Chagoury has faced scrutiny for his political involvement in Lebanon and Nigeria. Critics have accused him of using his financial support to prop up dictators and advance his own business interests. 

In 2015 Chagoury was denied entry to the United States, and a 2016 report from the Los Angeles Times said he had briefly been put on a no-fly list by U.S. authorities.

The Chagoury Group, which he owns with his brother, was awarded control in 2013 of the Eko Atlantic project, a massive construction and development project in Nigeria. The project will create a new waterfront residential and business district in Lagos, the country’s largest city. 

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As an interesting coincidence, Chagoury has business connections to figures involved in the Vatican finance scandal. One participant and partner in the Eko Atlantic project is Gabriele Volpi, who is linked to some figures now on trial in the Vatican.

According to prosecutors in the ongoing Vatican City trial of 10 individuals variously accused of embezzlement, corruption, abuse of office, extortion and a range of other crimes, Volpi is linked through Raffaele Mincione and Gianluigi Torzi to a multi-million dollar investment in the Italian bank Banca Carige in 2018.

In a complicated series of transactions, prosecutors allege that Volpi effectively underwrote Mincione’s investment in the Italian bank, with Torzi acting as a middleman. During the course of the transaction, prosecutors allege Volpi bought overvalued shares of Imvest, an Italian property development company, which were sold to him at more than 8 million euros above their market valuation,.

Several individuals connected to Imvest have also been connected to the London building and the Vatican financial scandal. 

Mincione and Torzi have both been charged by Vatican prosecutors for their role in the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal, and the trial remains ongoing.

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With regard to his case, Fortenberry has claimed the indictment could be politically motivated. 

An email sent Tuesday by Fortenberry’s office noted that after Fortenberry talked with investigators in 2019, and was assured he “not a target” in their probe, there was “radio silence from the prosecutors -- until the Trump Justice Department became the Biden Justice Department; and this California prosecutor was in the running for a big promotion; and don’t forget the mid-term elections right around the corner for control of the House.” 

“Only then did the prosecutors announce that they were poised to seek an indictment accusing Jeff of lying.”

Fortenberry has “got the truth on his side,” the email said.

“But even an accusation is a hard reputational hit. A false accusation is a particularly nasty hit. And the process could take years,” the email, signed by Fortenberry and his wife, said.

“I don’t know why we have been called to fight this fight. But we are fighting it, with everything we’ve got, for our family and for America. Maybe we can help stop people in power from using the Justice Department as a weapon against their political enemies.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.