Fortenberry’s federal trial reveals details about fundraiser

Fortenberry walking into court.
Fortenberry walking into court.
Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 4:08 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (WOWT) - Monday’s testimony at Day 4 of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s federal trial revealed more about what Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was told — and not told — about $30,000 in donations made to his campaign in 2016.

The Congressman is accused of lying to the FBI about campaign contributions made through a foreign national during a California fundraiser. The donations were made illegally; the jury is tasked with deciding whether Fortenberry knew about them.

The case is progressing slower than expected; the original timeline had the government resting its case by now. At the current pace, the jury likely won’t get the case until Thursday.

The testimony of Toufic Baaklini, a U.S. citizen with foreign ties who founded the nonprofit In Defense of Christians, continued Monday with more questions from Prosecutor Jamari Buxton, who worked to demonstrate the relationship between Nebraska’s 1st District Congressman and who funneled illegal money into his campaign.

Baaklini testified that he didn’t tell Fortenberry that $50,000 had come from a foreign billionaire because he didn’t think the Congressman would accept it if he knew it was illegal. But prosecutors say Fortenberry later learned the contribution was illegal and repeatedly lied about it to the FBI.

Baaklini also testified that he lied to Fortenberry after the fundraiser and told him there was nothing wrong with the money in order to protect him.

Buxton showed texts and photos of the two at the International Catholic Legislators Network Conference in Rome. Baaklini said Fortenberry tried to meet with funder Gilbert Chagoury while in Rome but that it didn’t work out.

In opening statements, the jury was told Fortenberry only ever met Chagoury in person twice, but Baaklini said in court that the Congressman trusted him.

In cross-examination, lead defense attorney John Littrell asked Baaklini about his background. Baaklini’s experiences as a Christian born in Lebanon who fled to the U.S. as a refugee led him to create his nonprofit.

Baaklini testified that he met Fortenberry for the first time after IDC’s first summit in 2014 but had been previously aware of Fortenberry’s history as a Catholic and of his support of Catholic works. He said he befriended the Congressman because he saw him as an advocate for religious freedom.

Baaklini said they were friends, but the defense pointed out that Baaklini had knowns Chagoury for nearly 30 years — almost three times as long as he knew Fortenberry.

Baaklini also testified Monday that by June 2018, he had hired a criminal defense lawyer related to the investigation into illegal campaign contributions and was avoiding meeting or talking with Fortenberry at this time because of the investigation.

After finishing testimony from Baaklini, the court also heard from two additional witnesses on the government’s side. The prosecution called Alexandra Kendrick, who was working as a fundraiser for Fortenberry’s campaign at the time of the donation.

She said that while organizing the fundraiser, she had concerns because of a previous experience she had with a campaign that received illegal donations from a foreign national via conduit donors who weren’t born in the U.S. She called it a “worst-case scenario... like a betrayal” because the host of the fundraiser wasn’t sharing donor information, which she said wasn’t normal for that type of fundraiser.

With that concern in mind, she said she became extra worried when she didn’t receive an RSVP list in order to vet the donors ahead of the event.

The defense tried to poke holes in her testimony, questioning why she didn’t warn Fortenberry earlier about her concerns. Kendrick said she told the Congressman about that previous experience at least once, noting she had not received the RSVP list; but she couldn’t remember specific details about those conversations.

The California fundraiser turned out to be one of the bigger fundraisers that year for the Congressman.

The prosecution also called Dr. Elias Ayoub, the host of the fundraiser and the man who facilitated the conduit donations. Much of Monday afternoon’s testimony involved questions for him. The court also hear recorded phone calls where it was clear Fortenberry was asking him to host another fundraiser in California.

Fortenberry is charged with one count of scheming to falsify or conceal material facts and two counts of making a false statement to a government agency. Each felony charge comes with a maximum penalty of five years.

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