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Nebraska Rep. Fortenberry is charged with lying to authorities over illegal donations

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., is seen on July 26.
Bill Clark
CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., is seen on July 26.

Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was charged Tuesday with lying to federal authorities about illegal campaign contributions made to his 2016 reelection campaign.

In a video posted online ahead of the indictment, Fortenberry, a conservative Republican who represents the state's 1st district, alluded to illegal contributions made to his campaign by Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury.

Authorities said that Chagoury, who as a foreign national is prohibited from contributing to U.S. elections, arranged for $30,000 of his money to be contributed through other individuals to Fortenberry's campaign during a Los Angeles fundraiser.

Chagoury later paid a $1.8 million fine to settle allegations of illegal contributions to four candidates.

"About five-and-a-half years ago, a person from overseas illegally moved money to my campaign. I didn't know anything about this," Fortenberry said in the video.

The congressman said that he was first questioned about the illegal campaign contributions two-and-a-half years ago by FBI agents from California. The grand jury indictment was filed in Los Angeles.

"They've accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this," Fortenberry said in the video. "We're shocked. We're stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. I thought we were trying to help, and so now we will have to fight."

Law enforcement officials said they learned about the financial misconduct from a cohost of the 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser, identified only as "Individual H," who had been cooperating with federal investigators.

The indictment states that in spring 2018, Fortenberry reached out to "Individual H" about hosting another fundraiser, and in June of that year, "Individual H" told Fortenberry several times that an associate of Chagoury had provided the individual with $30,000 to funnel into Fortenberry's 2016 campaign.

The indictment further states that "Individual H" allegedly told Fortenberry that the money "probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury."

In his denial video, Fortenberry called the charges "extremely painful" and vowed to fight the case.

"I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew," he said.

Fortenberry — who is known for his work to protect persecuted Yazidis and Christians in Iraq, and who is in his ninth term in Congress — is being charged with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.