Host of L.A. fundraiser says Fortenberry ‘heard and understood’ that the funds raised were illegal

By: - March 21, 2022 2:22 pm
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U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and his wife, Celeste, leave the downtown U.S. Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles on Monday. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This report was updated about 8:30 p.m. CDT.

LOS ANGELES — The host of a now-infamous 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser in which U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was given $30,000 in illegal, “conduit” political donations testified Monday that the congressman clearly got the message later that the contributions were illegal.

“He heard and understood,” said Dr. Elias Ayoub.

The surgeon was referring to a key bit of evidence in the felony criminal trial of the congressman: a June 2018 phone call — secretly recorded by the FBI — in which Ayoub told Fortenberry that the money “probably” came from a Washington, D.C., operative of Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris.

It is illegal for foreigners to contribute to U.S. political campaigns, either directly or secretly through “straw men.”

Ayoub said he assumed the money originated from Chagoury because three times prior to the 2016 Fortenberry event, he had distributed illegal, conduit donations to three other politicians.

They were U.S. Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney and then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., in amounts ranging from $50,000 to $20,000. All gifts were due to the officials’ work to help Christians and other religious minorities.

“At the time, I believed it was illegal,” Dr. Ayoub said, “but I was too blinded by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.”

“When you see them on TV getting slaughtered, that’s very, very powerful,” he testified later.

Ayoub’s testimony punctuated the fourth day of the criminal trial of Fortenberry, who has represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005.

The 61-year-old Republican faces three federal charges: that he lied twice to federal investigators probing Chagoury’s illegal contributions and that he then tried to conceal it by not amending his federal campaign spending report.

Fortenberry has pleaded not guilty, and his defense has claimed he was “set up” by federal agents who conducted a “failed memory test.”

His defense attorneys have maintained that he either didn’t clearly hear the 2018 warnings from Dr. Ayoub, didn’t understand them, or had just forgotten what he’d been told when interviewed by federal agents a year later.

Federal prosecutors must prove that Fortenberry willfully and knowingly lied to investigators.

On Monday, prosecutors brought three witnesses intimately involved in the 2016 fundraiser. All said they either knew the $30,000 in donations was illegal, or they suspected it.

But none of the three — Ayoub, Baaklini or professional political fundraiser Alexandra Kendrick — could definitively say whether Fortenberry knew the donations he got were illegal.

That was despite the 2018 cell phone call from Ayoub in which — at the direction of the FBI — he made four references that the $30,000 in 2016 came from Baaklini and “probably” originated with Chagoury.

But Ayoub rejected defense attorney suggestions that the congressman might have failed to clearly hear or understand what Ayoub had told him.

Prosecutor Mack Jenkins asked Ayoub whether Fortenberry ever said during the cell phone call that there was bad cell reception or mention that he was having trouble hearing Ayoub. Jenkins also asked Ayoub whether it appeared there was any miscommunication.

“No,” responded Ayoub.

A spokesman for Fortenberry’s re-election campaign, in a statement after court proceedings ended Monday, said testimony so far has failed to show that the congressman lied to anyone.

“However, every prosecution witness who knows Fortenberry well has testified that he’s an honest man of good character who is scrupulous in following the law,” said spokesman Chad Kolton.

Fortenberry sat quietly throughout Monday’s proceedings, writing down some notes but mostly watching the testimony or slides of text messages and photographs displayed on a video screen.

He left the downtown L.A. federal courthouse hand-in-hand with his wife, Celeste and two of his five daughters, without commenting.

The trial is now expected to extend into Thursday, two days later than planned.

The recording of the June 2018 warning phone call from Ayoub to Fortenberry was played Monday for a third time for jurors. At least a couple rubbed their eyes while it was played.

Some interesting points came out during the testimony.

Cash in a paper bag:  The $30,000 in cash, in a brown paper bag, that was destined for Fortenberry was mistakenly left on the rear seat of Dr. Ayoub’s car, which was parked by a valet at an L.A. restaurant.

“I was very nervous about it,” Ayoub, a 77-year-old surgeon, told jurors Monday.

Suspicious fundraiser: Kendrick, the fundraiser hired by Fortenberry to organize the 2016 L.A. event, testified that she was very suspicious of it because she had been involved in an earlier fundraiser, with foreign-born contributors, that turned out to involve illegal funds from a foreign source.

“It’s the worst-case scenario,” said Kendrick of learning that the contributions were illegal at the previous event. “It’s like a betrayal.”

She said she hadn’t been provided with an advance list of attendees of the Los Angeles event, as is normal, and wasn’t sure how many people would attend. She wasn’t convinced it would raise enough money, $20,000, to make the trip worthwhile.

Trouble confirming employment: Kendrick said she had warned Fortenberry about her misgivings, but he went ahead with the fundraiser, which she described as a great success. She said she did have trouble afterward confirming where some donors worked, which must be listed on federal campaign spending reports.

She said she took an unusual step at the L.A. fundraiser, asking each donor to fill out a donation form listing their name, address and occupation because of her concerns.

Asked friends, relatives for help: Dr. Ayoub said he asked six friends and relatives to come to his office, where he distributed the $30,000 in cash among them, as well as to himself and his wife, to be distributed later to Fortenberry.

Didn’t tell Fortenberry: Baaklini, who carried the cash from Chagoury to Ayoub, said he never told Fortenberry where the $30,000 originated.“You didn’t want him to know?” Baaklini was asked.

“Yes,” he responded.

Baaklini was then the director of In Defense of Christians. Fortenberry approached that Washington, D.C., group, which works to help persecuted Catholics and other religious minorities in the Middle East, to set up the 2016 fundraiser.

Order of St. Gregory: Fortenberry, during his 2016 visit to L.A., was inducted into the Order of St. Gregory, which Ayoub described as a great honor bestowed by the pope for meritorious service. Chagoury, who serves as the Vatican’s ambassador to the island of St. Lucia, is also a member.

While there are no obligations, the order allows members to wear a special green uniform and to ride a horse at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.—– Ayoub said he first became acquainted with Fortenberry because the congressman spoke at the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians in 2014.

Ayoub, a board member of the organization, said he was impressed with Fortenberry’s speech and approached him because the surgeon had lived nine years in the Omaha area as he attended Creighton University medical school.

Meetings with cardinal, pope: Baaklini exchanged frequent emails and texts with Fortenberry, who invited him to attend the State of the Union address and to attend a conference in Rome that included a meeting with the pope.

Fortenberry had also invited Chagoury on the August 2016 trip to Rome in conjunction with meetings of the International Catholic Legislative Network, but Chagoury declined.

Among the evidence submitted Monday were photos Baaklini took of Fortenberry and his wife meeting the cardinal of Vienna and a photo Fortenberry took of Baaklini’s meeting with the pope.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.

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