Attorneys, FBI agent break down phone call where Fortenberry was told about potential illegal activity
LOS ANGELES, Calif. (KOLN) - The defense and prosecution in the case against Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, aren’t arguing whether or not Fortenberry’s 2016 campaign received illegal campaign contributions through Lebanese-born foreign national Gilbert Chagoury.
They’re arguing about when or if Fortenberry knew about the illegal activity and lied about it to the FBI.
On Thursday, jurors in the case heard opening statements from prosecutor Jamari Buxton and defense attorney Glen Summers. Both described a criminal case that centers around a ten-minute phone call between Fortenberry and Dr. Elias Ayoub, who organized the fundraiser where conduit donors gave Fortenberry the $30,000 from Chagoury.
Buxton said that phone call happened in 2018. By that time, Ayoub was an informant with the FBI on a case referred to as “Operation Titan’s Grip,” which was investigating illegal contributions made by Chagoury related to the cause of supporting Christians in the Middle East. Buxton said in that call, Fortenberry was told about illegal contributions made to his campaign, but Fortenberry didn’t react.
“Evidence will show the defendant didn’t ask the host for more information, say he was horrified or hang up the phone,” Buxton said. “He said ‘no problem,’ and was hopeful to have a continuation of the generosity he had received.”
Buxton said Fortenberry had a chance to come clean in a 2019 interview with the FBI in his Lincoln home, but he denied any knowledge of illegal contributions.
Buxton said Fortenberry went down an “illegal path of lies and concealment which lead him to the courtroom.”
Defense attorney, Summers, painted a different picture of that phone call, but only after introducing the jury to Fortenberry’s five daughters and first granddaughter, who were in the gallery. The granddaughter, clad in green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Summers said the prosecution has mischaracterized Fortenberry’s reaction to the phone call.
“He (Fortenberry) is absolutely innocent,” Summers said. “He didn’t lie ever. He did not try to scheme or conceal. He did everything possible to help.”
Summers said when Fortenberry got that phone call from Dr. Ayoub in 2018, he was getting back from a trip to Europe and was in his home in Lincoln. He said Fortenberry didn’t take notes while taking fundraising calls and would often complete tasks around the house while making the calls. He showed a diagram of the country, pointing out that the FBI didn’t test the phone connection between L.A. and Lincoln.
“They (the FBI) believe he (Fortenberry) heard every word Ayoub said, but there’s no evidence of that,” Summers said. “What if Fortenberry didn’t hear a few words, what if he didn’t understand.”
The prosecution’s first witness, Supervisory Special Agent Todd Carter, further broke down the phone call which was played for jurors. Carter said before the call, which was set up by the FBI, he wrote down topics for Dr. Ayoub to bring up. They had the goal of finding out if Fortenberry knew about illegal campaign contributions.
When the call begins, Dr. Ayoub and Fortenberry catch up before Fortenberry brings up the opportunity to hold a small dinner fundraiser similar to the 2016 fundraiser where he got the $30,000 donations. In response to this request, Dr. Ayoub said they were able to hold the first fundraiser because he got $30,000 from Toufic Baaklini, probably from Gilbert Chagoury. He said he didn’t know if he’d be able to get the money again.
Fortenberry replied by discussing the situation for Christians in the Middle East and expressing his gratitude for Baaklini and Chagoury and continued discussing another fundraiser. Carter said at his request, he had Ayoub mention that Chagoury helped with “$30,000 cash” another time, but Fortenberry again, didn’t react.
Carter said based on this call, he believed Fortenberry was aware of illegal campaign contributions, which is what led to the interview at Fortenberry’s home where they asked if he remembered Dr. Ayoub mentioning illegal contributions. To which the prosecution said Fortenberry replied, he didn’t.
Summers said in his opening statement and cross examination of Carter, Fortenberry was unfairly set up, because there’s no way to know if he remembered or understood what Dr. Ayoub said about illegal contributions.
“They tried to set up a test of honesty and they concluded he failed,” Summers said. “They gave him information through a cell phone with no proof of what he actually heard then waited months and asked him a very specific question.”
Summers said Fortenberry did his “level best” to explain what happened to the investigators. He said Fortenberry called officials with his campaign after the call to confirm he didn’t have anything to worry about and none of them raised any alarm. He said when he tried to explain his concerns to the FBI, they cut him off and expected a yes or no answer about whether or not he knew.
At the end of testimony Thursday, Summers asked Carter if the FBI had surveillance on Fortenberry during the phone call. Carter said they didn’t. The day ended with Summers questioning the accuracy of recording devices used by the agents in recording the phone call.
Testimony will continue Friday with further cross examination of Carter.
GALLERY (below): Courtroom sketches from Thursday, March 17.
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