Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, has been sentenced to probation for lying to the federal government. But the only things we know for certain are that the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) lied to entrap Fortenberry, and used two men who broke campaign finance laws to betray the congressman in his zeal to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
A Los Angeles jury convicted Fortenberry in March on three felony counts of lying to the FBI and scheming to cover it up. The congressman faced a maximum sentence of 15 years — five years for each count. The prosecution had sought a six-month prison sentence. Tuesday, however, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, Jr. sentenced the former congressman to two years of probation, as well as a $25,000 fine and 320 hours of community service.
In handing down his sentence, Blumenfeld said that everyone, including the prosecution witnesses, attests that Fortenberry is “a man of exceptional character.” Fortenberry and his defense team are appealing the convictions.
Under 18 U.S.C. §1001, it is a federal crime to tell a government official or agency a “material” lie. That means a lie that, if the government were to believe it, would have the tendency of affecting an official’s or agency’s course of conduct. Ironically, the FBI and the DOJ are guilty of doing exactly the things with which they charged Fortenberry.
Would I Lie to You?
The case stems from a February 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles in which Fortenberry participated. Toufic Baaklini, a U.S. citizen, Maronite Catholic, and advocate for Christians in the Middle East, used the fundraiser to channel the money of a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, to Fortenberry’s campaign. Campaign donations from foreign nationals are illegal.
Baaklini, then a long-time friend of the congressman, testified at Fortenberry’s trial that he knew such conduit donations were illegal, but he misled Fortenberry by having $30,000 of Chagoury’s money divided among a number of people at the fundraiser so no red flags would be raised regarding the contributions.
Dr. Elias Ayoub, another Maronite Catholic who helped organize the L.A. fundraiser, also admitted in court that he has made a number of illegal campaign contributions using Chagoury’s money, including to U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. In addition, both Baaklini and Ayoub testified that Fortenberry didn’t know the contributions had come from Chagoury, and Baaklini testified that Fortenberry raised that very issue early in the fundraising process.
As KOLN-TV in Lincoln, Nebraska, reported this past March, Baaklini made a stark admission in court to John Littrell, Fortenberry’s lawyer, saying he didn’t want Fortenberry to know about the illegal nature of the contributions, even when the congressman specifically asked if there was anything wrong with the fundraiser.
“You lied to protect him, didn’t you?” Littrell asked Baaklini. Baaklini replied yes.
So why isn’t Baaklini facing possible prison time, as well as Ayoub? Because the FBI and the DOJ wanted a bigger fish—a sitting U.S. congressman—and used Baaklini and Ayoub as witnesses at Fortenberry’s trial.
A Man of Good Character
In serving Nebraska’s first congressional district since January 2005, Fortenberry has distinguished himself as a man of integrity in both his personal and professional life. In sworn testimony, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, a liberal Democrat and Chaldean Catholic who has worked with Fortenberry on aiding Christians in the Middle East, affirmed her Republican colleague’s character.
“I think he brings honor to what he does because of the individual he is,” Eshoo said. “He’s faith-filled, he’s honest. His word is always good, and I can’t say that about all members of Congress, and you find out the hard way.” Eshoo added that Fortenberry had a reputation of being a rule-follower.
Also, Fortenberry had been regularly targeted by opponents in his reelection campaigns, including because of his defense of the unborn and women harmed by abortion, yet he easily won reelection term after term. So if Fortenberry is known by Democratic colleagues as being honest, and he directly asked Baaklini if the 2016 fundraiser in L.A. was tainted and was told everything was fine, how did the government make their case against the congressman?
Anatomy of an Abusive Prosecution
Even though the DOJ had zero evidence that Fortenberry had committed any crime, they had Ayoub tape a June 2018 conversation with the congressman. After the call, Fortenberry was concerned enough to tell his wife, his chief of staff, and his lawyer that he had renewed concerns about the 2016 fundraiser.
Then, in March 2019, the FBI came to Fortenberry’s home in Nebraska and deliberately lied to him and his wife, saying they were there for a national security issue, not a criminal matter. That lie disarmed Fortenberry, striking him as believable because of his service on a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee whose work deals with U.S. foreign relations.
The FBI agents also quizzed Fortenberry on various matters, and later said Fortenberry lied about not knowing Ayoub. In fact, the congressman didn’t recognize a 10-year-old photo of Ayoub, as it showed him with dyed-black hair and black eyebrows, whereas, Ayoub, now 77, has silver hair and silver eyebrows.
An FBI agent did ask Fortenberry whether he knew that lying to a federal agent was a crime. The congressman responded that he did. His recollections of his unbeknownst-taped conversation with Ayoub the previous June were sketchy, not because he lied, but because of faulty recall and Fortenberry’s tendency to multi-task during fundraising calls, as his wife Celeste testified, because he didn’t enjoy doing them.
In the process, Fortenberry missed Ayoub’s point that Chagoury had likely contributed to the 2016 fundraiser. His failure to recall that was another instance, the DOJ argued, which showed the congressman’s intent to deceive, as well as Fortenberry’s assertion on the same call that he’d be interested in doing another fundraiser with Ayoub.
In a July 2019 interview in Washington, D.C., the FBI also lied to Fortenberry and his attorney, Trey Gowdy, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina. Gowdy specifically asked the FBI agents whether Fortenberry was a target of their investigation. They said he wasn’t.
That wasn’t true, and the FBI and DOJ cobbled together a case, saying that Fortenberry had not only lied but had deliberately tried to deceive the FBI. Part of making their case was that Fortenberry’s former lawyer testified she couldn’t recall the contents of her June 2018 conversation with Fortenberry, but she said she would’ve definitely remembered had he mentioned anything about possible illegal donations.
A Stickler for the Law Who Also Deliberately Deceives?
Never mind that this same attorney testified that Fortenberry was in the habit of calling her a lot—a virtue that affirms Eshoo’s assessment that Fortenberry is committed to adhering to the law. Nevertheless, based on the attorney’s testimony, the DOJ argued that Fortenberry had further willfully withheld self-incriminating evidence about the fundraiser, even though, again, Baaklini had testified that the congressman had directly asked whether the contributions were illegal early in the process and he—Baaklini—had lied to Fortenberry in saying they weren’t.
In addition, Fortenberry’s alleged crimes took place while he was on the phone in his Nebraska home. Nevertheless, because the prosecution argued his actions had relevance to their investigation in California, they succeeded in changing the legal venue to Los Angeles, a well-known leftist region where seating a jury unfavorable to the congressman was much more likely than in Nebraska, Fortenberry’s congressional home.
The venue issue is a likely ground for Fortenberry’s appeal, as is the argument that Fortenberry didn’t materially lie to the FBI.
Lying Is Okay if the Government Does It
Meanwhile, the government’s conduct in this case is very disturbing. An FBI agent admitted at the March trial that he had lied to Fortenberry at his home in March 2019, but he said that is part of the FBI’s normal tactics to extract the truth.
However, the DOJ and the FBI, both agencies of the executive branch of the U.S. government that includes the president as chief executive, had no substantive basis to pursue a criminal investigation of Fortenberry, a sitting congressman who had a sterling reputation for integrity. Instead, even though they knew that Baaklini and Ayoub had clearly violated the law, and despite Baaklini’s admission that the congressman had directly asked him whether the L.A. fundraiser was tainted, they pursued Fortenberry.
In short, they went on a legal fishing expedition to concoct a case against the congressman. Fortenberry’s failure to be attentive during his fundraising calls, and errors in his recall, are evidence of personal imperfections. But they are certainly not the basis of a legitimate criminal prosecution, let alone convictions.
A Disturbing Legal Precedent
Our federal government, based on a system of checks and balances that the founders established almost 250 years ago, presumes that the respective branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—will conduct themselves with integrity in interacting with each other. When trust is undermined, our system of government is jeopardized. By abusively wielding power to intimidate a legislator, the FBI and DOJ threaten that delicate balance.
Unhealthy competition between the branches will consume them and devour any chance that public officials will rise above petty bickering and destructive partisanship to cooperate in the best interests of the country. By enlisting the judiciary to turn that threat of prison into a potential reality, the FBI and DOJ have turned the system on its head. What the founders intended as an aggressive but civil competition is now in danger of becoming a deadly serious game which menaces the civil liberties and freedoms of those who dare to undertake public service.
This episode should be especially disconcerting to all faithful Catholics and other Christians concerned about their place in a society that is increasingly hostile to religion. Indeed, Fortenberry ended up a prosecutorial target precisely because of his work defending the right of Middle Eastern Christians to live and practice their faith. Christians especially must answer the call, and stand up against this most troubling evolution in the DOJ and FBI’s battle with Congress.