LOS ANGELES (AP) — A close friend and supporter of a Nebraska congressman told a federal jury Friday that he acted as a middleman in a plot that funneled $30,000 from a Nigerian-born billionaire to the Republican lawmaker’s reelection campaign through straw donors.
On the third day of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Toufic Baaklini said that he received the cash from the son of businessman Gilbert Chagoury, the source of the funds. He testified that he then left the cash in an envelope in the car of an L.A.-based doctor to distribute for the 2016 Fortenberry fundraiser in the city.
Baaklini is a central figure in the case in which the nine-term congressman faces charges that he lied to and misled federal investigators about the illegal contributions, which he denies. Prosecutors have described Baaklini as a U.S.-based businessman and Chagoury consultant who later agreed to cooperate with federal officials.
Under questioning from prosecutor J. Jamari Buxton, Baaklini, who then headed a Washington-based group working to end the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, said he was aware that it was illegal under federal law for Chagoury, who is not a U.S. citizen, to donate to U.S. elections.
Baaklini also said he knew it was illegal to donate campaign money under someone else's name.
Fortenberry's attorneys have argued that the case is a setup built on concocted evidence, and the congressman had no knowledge of the scheme to help finance his reelection bid.
Baaklini described himself as a close friend of Fortenberry, and said the two bonded over what prosecutors have described as "the cause” — helping Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East. The lead figures in the alleged plot all had ties to Baaklini's group, In Defense of Christians, and are of Lebanese descent.
Buxton used a series of texts to highlight the close relationship Baaklini shared with Fortenberry, including other fundraising appeals from the congressman.
In other testimony, defense attorney Glen Summers continued his attempts to challenge the credibility of FBI special agent Todd Carter, a key player in the investigation.
Carter has said he was suspicious of Fortenberry's role — and a possible quid pro quo — after the congressman proposed a resolution condemning the persecution of Christians in the Middle East shortly after the February 2016 fundraiser. But Summers pointed out that the resolution was introduced in 2015, months before the event.
Summers also noted that Fortenberry had nearly $1.5 million in his political treasury at the end of March 2016, apparently suggesting he had no need to engage in a plot to gain $30,000 in illegal funds. He questioned why the FBI never held a meeting to warn the congressman of a potential problem, instead of arriving unannounced at his home to question him.
But prosecutor Mack Jenkins responded that investigators had warned Fortenberry during the investigation, by arranging a recorded phone call in which the L.A. doctor, Elias Ayoub, told Fortenberry he received the $30,000 in cash from Baaklini, and Chagoury was probably the source of it. Defense attorneys have raised doubts about what Fortenberry heard and understood from the call.
Fortenberry campaign spokesman Chad Kolton said in a statement that the testimony “highlighted the shoddy investigative work at the core of this case.”
The congressman, who is running for reelection, has pleaded not guilty to charges he deliberately misled FBI agents and prosecutors who were investigating the 2016 donations.
Prosecutors allege Fortenberry, 61, lied about what he knew on two occasions — an interview at his Lincoln home and a follow-up meeting in Washington — and didn’t properly disclose the contribution in his campaign filings.
If he’s convicted, Fortenberry wouldn’t automatically lose his seat, but House rules would bar him from voting in any committee or on the floor. He has already stepped down temporarily from his position as the ranking member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, as required by House Republican rules.
With the trial underway, many prominent Nebraska Republicans have abandoned the incumbent in favor of a young, conservative state lawmaker who wants to oust Fortenberry in the May 10 primary.
The case stems from an FBI investigation into $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns from Chagoury, who lives in Paris. Chagoury admitted to the crime in 2019 and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.