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Federal grand jury indicts Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on charges of lying to investigators about campaign contribution

GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry speaks during an Ashland, Neb., event featuring the state’s congressional leaders in 2017. (Nati Harnik/AP)

A federal grand jury has indicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) on charges of lying to federal investigators about his campaign contributions.

The congressman, who was elected in 2004, said in a video released Monday evening that he anticipated the indictment. His wife, Celeste, in a letter to supporters before the indictment was announced, labeled it a “false accusation.”

The federal grand jury charged him with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators looking into illegal contributions to his 2016 campaign, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

Under House Republican rules, Fortenberry will have to step down as the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture while the charges are pending. Aides to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Fortenberry’s committee assignments.

Fortenberry, 60, served on the Lincoln City Council for four years before winning an open House seat in 2004 on a conservative record of opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He has easily won reelection in the Republican-leaning district. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The charges center on a $30,200 donation made by Gilbert Chagoury, a wealthy Nigerian business executive of Lebanese descent, in January 2016 “using other individuals as conduits,” according to the indictment.

“As a foreign national, Chagoury was prohibited from making donations and contributions directly or indirectly in support of any candidate for federal elected office in the United States,” the indictment states.

An individual who helped funnel the donation to Fortenberry’s campaign account through others began cooperating with law enforcement in September 2016. The individual told Fortenberry during a June 2018 phone call that the donation “probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause,” the indictment states.

Fortenberry did not file an amended FEC report. He went on to ask the individual to host another fundraiser for him, and later, in 2019, the congressman “knowingly and willfully made materially false statements and representations to the FBI and IRS” regarding the donation, according to the indictment.

In the video released Monday night, Fortenberry said he “didn’t know anything about” the illegal foreign donation. He described his conversations with FBI agents when they knocked on his door “about two and a half years ago.”

“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” Fortenberry said in the video. “They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this. We’re shocked. We’re stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. We thought we were trying to help. And so now, we will have to fight.”

Celeste Fortenberry said her husband is known for his honesty and integrity.

“His enemies try to accuse him of many things, but never lying. His opponents may not agree with him, but they know they can trust him,” she wrote. “Let me say it again: this accusation is entirely false. Jeff did not lie to the FBI. This has all the marks of being a political attack, a bogus charge manufactured to take him out.”

Most recently, former representatives Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) and Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) were indicted while in office and forced to resign. The two, who were early and avid supporters of former president Donald Trump, both won pardons from Trump in the closing weeks of his administration, in December 2020.

Hunter, who prosecutors alleged used hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to pay for family vacations and theater tickets and even to facilitate extramarital affairs, had been facing an 11-month federal prison sentence. He pleaded guilty in 2019 to misusing campaign funds. Hunter notably won reelection while under indictment, only to later admit wrongdoing and resign.

Collins had been serving a 26-month sentence for an insider-trading scheme and lying to the FBI. He had pleaded guilty in the case.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.