Timeline of events leading up to U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s criminal case

By: - March 21, 2022 9:04 pm

U.S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles where U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s trial is being held. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LOS ANGELES — U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., is on trial in federal court on three felony counts, which involve allegations that he lied to federal agents and “schemed” to conceal illegal campaign contributions.

Here is a timeline of events in the case:

2014 — In Defense of Christians, a Washington, D.C., group is formed that is dedicated to protecting Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris, donates $1.3 million to get it established. Fortenberry speaks at its inaugural gala.

Feb. 20-21, 2016 — Weekend of events in Los Angeles, including a fundraiser in which the congressman gets $30,000 in donations from eight members of a Lebanese-American family. Toufic Baaklini, the head of In Defense of Christians, has testified that the money, delivered in a brown paper bag, came from Chagoury. After the L.A. fundraiser, Fortenberry ran into Baaklini and asked him if there was any “problem” with the event. Baaklini said he lied and said “No.”

June 2016 — Fortenberry calls an attorney who specializes in federal election law expressing some vague concerns. The attorney said she would have definitely remembered if the call was about “conduit” or foreign political donations.

September 2016 — FBI probe begins, with agents interviewing the host of the February fundraiser, Dr. Elias Ayoub. He initially didn’t mention Fortenberry, then grew ashamed and provided a binder of information about the L.A. gifts and agreed to cooperate in the investigation.

April 9, 2018 — Fortenberry asks Dr. Ayoub if a second fundraiser could be arranged in L.A.

June 4, 2018 — FBI records a telephone call, placed by Ayoub, to finalize discussions about a second fundraiser. In it, Ayoub mentions at least three times — at the FBI’s urging — that the 2016 were illegal conduit contributions that “probably” came from a foreigner, Chagoury. Fortenberry once responded “no problem,” adding that he hoped to enjoy the “fine generosity” of the L.A., Lebanese-Catholic community.

March 23, 2019 — Two FBI agents knock, unannounced, at Fortenberrys’ Lincoln home. The congressman is so upset he asks Lincoln police to sit in on the interview with the agents. Fortenberry denies any knowledge of illegal contributions.

June 18, 2019 — Fortenberry, through his then-attorney, former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, asks for a second interview. Fortenberry again denies any knowledge that the 2016 donations were illegal and later alleges he was “misled” into continuing the interrogation.

March, 2021 — Deferred prosecution agreements are announced for Chagoury, Baaklini and another Chagoury associate, Joseph Arsan in connection with illegal campaign donations. Chagoury pays a $1.8 million fine, Baaklini pays $90,000, and both agree to cooperate with the FBI. Arsan pays $1.6 million, which included resolution of tax violations. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also pays a $40,000 for not reporting a $50,000 loan from Chagoury. Fortenberry is identified as “Candidate D” in documents.

Oct. 19, 2021 — Fortenberry is indicted on two felony counts of lying to federal agents and on a third count for “scheming” to conceal illegal contributions. Each charge is punishable by up to five years in prison. The 61-year-old congressman has pleaded not guilty to all charges, saying they were a “setup.”

March 16, 2022 – Fortenberry’s trial begins in a downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse.

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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 later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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