Indictment accuses Nebraska congressman of lying to FBI

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WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 15: U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) walks through the Capitol Building on October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. The government has been shut down for 14 days. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, accusing him of lying to the FBI and concealing information from federal agents who were investigating campaign contributions funneled to him from a Nigerian billionaire.

The U.S. attorney’s office announced that the federal grand jury in Los Angeles had indicted the nine-term Republican on one charge of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

The indictment stems from an FBI investigation into $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury. The contributions were funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016 and went to four U.S. politicians, including $30,200 to Fortenberry in 2016 and $10,000 to then-Rep. Lee Terry, who represented the Omaha area in 2014.

The indictment alleges that a cohost of the 2016 fundraiser told Fortenberry that the donations probably did come from Chagoury, but Fortenberry never filed an amended campaign report with the Federal Election Commission as required. It says he later “made false and misleading statements” to federal investigators during the March 23, 2019 interview.

According to the indictment, Fortenberry falsely told investigators that he wasn’t aware of an associate of Chagoury being involved in illegal contributions, that the donors were publicly disclosed and that he wasn’t aware of any contributions from a foreign national.

In a second interview in July 2019, the indictment says Fortenberry denied that he was aware of any illicit donation made during the 2016 fundraiser.

In a YouTube video posted Monday night, Fortenberry said he was “shocked” and “stunned” by the allegations and asked his supporters to rally behind him.

Knowingly making false statements to a federal agent is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

“We will fight these charges,” he said in the video, filmed inside a 1963 pickup truck with his wife, Celeste, and their dog, against a backdrop of corn. “I did not lie to them. I told them what I knew. But we need your help.”

Fortenberry’s campaign has said he didn’t know the donations, which the campaign received during a fundraiser in Los Angeles, originated with Chagoury.

Fortenberry, of Lincoln, said FBI agents from California came to his home about 2 1/2 years ago after he had been out dealing with a major storm that had just hit Nebraska. He said they questioned him about the contributions then and in a follow-up interview.

“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” he said.

Fortenberry represents the state’s 1st Congressional District, a heavily Republican area that includes Lincoln, surrounding farmland and small towns in eastern Nebraska. Fortenberry was first elected to the seat in 2004. He won his last election in 2020 with 60% of the vote and has generally defeated Democratic challengers by lopsided margins.

His statement that he expected to be indicted was first reported by the Omaha World-Herald.

His wife, Celeste, said in a statement emailed to supporters that the anticipated indictment “has all the marks of being a political attack, a bogus charge manufactured to take him out.”

The FBI investigation began during the administration of former President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican. Celeste Fortenberry said her husband spoke with the agents voluntarily, without a lawyer, because he was under the impression that the agents needed his help to get to the bottom of the case.

She said he later called his friend, attorney and former congressman Trey Gowdy, for legal representation. She said her husband sat for another interview with agents in Washington and was repeatedly assured that he was not a target of the investigation.

She said they heard only “radio silence” from prosecutors until the Biden administration replaced the Trump administration in the U.S. attorney’s office, and prosecutors notified them that they were poised to seek charges.

She said the U.S. attorney involved is “in the running for a big promotion, and don’t forget the mid-term elections right around the corner for control of the House.”

Associated Press writer Josh Funk contributed to this report.

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