LOS ANGELES – Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry has resigned from Congress effective Thursday, following his conviction in Los Angeles on federal charges of concealing information and lying during an investigation into illegal campaign contributions.
“It has been my honor to serve with you in the United States House of Representatives,” the Republican said in the letter delivered to the House on Saturday. “Due to the difficulties of my current circumstances, I can no longer effectively serve.”
Fortenberry’s resignation letter opened with a poem, “Do It Anyway,” that is associated with Mother Teresa. One line from the poem says: “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, all urged the nine-term congressman to resign Friday.
Fortenberry was convicted Thursday of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Each of the three felony charges carry a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
Sentencing is scheduled for June 28.
Fortenberry was stoic as U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. delivered the verdict, but one of his daughters stood up and began sobbing uncontrollably, The Associated Press reported.
Once the jury left, Fortenberry walked over to his wife and daughters and embraced them in a hug before returning to his seat next to his lawyer, according to The Associated Press.
Fortenberry told reporters outside the courthouse that the process had been unfair and he would appeal.
According to evidence presented during a seven-day trial, Fortenberry lied to and misled authorities during two interviews conducted by federal authorities who were looking into illegal contributions to Fortenberry’s re- election campaign made by a foreign billionaire in early 2016.
Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national prohibited by federal law from contributing to any U.S. elections, donated $30,000 through “straw donors” who attended a Fortenberry campaign fundraiser in Glendale.
It is illegal for foreign nationals to make contributions to a federal campaign. It also is illegal for the true source of campaign contributions to be disguised by funneling the money through third-party conduits.
Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2019 in which he admitted providing about $180,000 that was used to make illegal contributions to four candidates in U.S. elections.
Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.
The co-host of the Fortenberry 2016 fundraiser, who is referred to in court papers at Individual H, began cooperating with federal authorities in September 2016 and informed special agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigations about the illegal contributions.
In response, investigators began looking into whether the Fortenberry campaign received illegal conduit contributions, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal contributions — both foreign contributions and conduit contributions — at the 2016 fundraiser, whether Fortenberry knew about illegal foreign contributions from Chagoury and whether Fortenberry had any direct or indirect communications with Chagoury in relation to the contributions made at the 2016 fundraiser, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In spring 2018, Fortenberry contacted the co-host about hosting another fundraiser. In a June 2018 call, the co-host told the congressman on multiple occasions that a Chagoury associate — Toufic Joseph Baaklini, who also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors — had provided him with $30,000 cash to route to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser.
The co-host allegedly told Fortenberry that the money — which was distributed to other individuals at the fundraiser so the donations could be made under their names and avoid individual donor limits — “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury,” according to the indictment.
Despite learning of the illegal contributions, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission.
Instead, after learning this information, Fortenberry made false and misleading statements during a March 23, 2019, interview with investigators who specifically told him it was a crime to lie to the federal government.
Fortenberry falsely told investigators that he was not aware of Baaklini ever being involved in illegal campaign contributions, that the individuals who made contributions at the 2016 fundraiser were all publicly disclosed and that he was not aware of any contributions to his campaign from a foreign national.
At a second interview on July 18, 2019, with federal investigators and prosecutors, Fortenberry made additional false statements, including denying he was aware of any illicit donations made during the 2016 fundraiser, denying that Individual H had told him Baaklini had provided the $30,000 cash at the 2016 fundraiser and stating that he would have been “horrified” to learn about the illegal conduit contributions.
During this second interview, Fortenberry also misleadingly stated he ended the June 2018 call with Individual H after that person made a “concerning comment,” when in fact Fortenberry continued to ask Individual H to host another fundraiser for his campaign, according to court documents.
“After learning of illegal contributions to his campaign, the congressman repeatedly chose to conceal the violations of federal law to protect his job, his reputation and his close associates,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison.
“The lies in this case threatened the integrity of the American electoral system and were designed to prevent investigators from learning the true source of campaign funds.”