Day four of Fortenberry’s trial brings congressman to tears when hearing from witnesses

Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry is accused of lying about a $30,000 illegal campaign contribution in 2016.
Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 5:33 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES (KOLN) - Jurors heard testimony from the main players in the $30,000 illegal donation made to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s 2016 campaign for re-election.

First to the stand Monday was Toufic Baaklini, a long-time friend of Fortenberry, the two have a shared goal of protecting Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East that for Baaklini, dates back to him fleeing Lebanon as a refugee.

The prosecution finished up their questioning with Baaklini, further laying out for the jury the relationship between Fortenberry and Baaklini, before passing the mic off to defense attorney John Littrell.

Littrell’s questions of Baaklini, brought Fortenberry to tears, with sketch artist Mona Edwards Shafer capturing the congressman wiping his eyes.

Baaklini testified that Fortenberry trusted him and he wanted to help the congressman.

He admitted to committing a crime. Telling Littrell he got $50,000 from Chagoury and gave Dr. Elias Ayoub $30,000 of that to give to the Fortenberry campaign with the understanding the money would be given through conduit donors.

Baaklini said he didn’t tell Fortenberry the money was illegal because he said he didn’t want Fortenberry to know, even when the congressman asked directly if there was anything wrong with the fundraiser.

“You lied to protect him, didn’t you,” Littrell asked Baaklini. Baaklini replied yes.

“You knew he would have returned the money if you told him the truth so you didn’t want him to know something was wrong, you didn’t want him to suspect something was wrong,” Littrell asked Baaklini, who again replied “Yes.”

Dr. Elias Ayoub was the next witness to be called, who gave the defense similar answers. Ayoub testified he has a history of making illegal campaign contributions using Gilbert Chagoury’s money, including to the campaigns for Lee Terry, Darrell Issa and Mitt Romney.

Ayoub said in all of these instances, he didn’t tell the candidates he was making illegal donations.

Ayoub broke down the moments leading up to the fundraiser for Fortenberry. He said after he got the $30,000 cash, he gathered some family and friends in his office and handed out the money from Chagoury to donate in their own names.

He said he knew it was illegal, but in cross examination, said he did it because of what he was seeing happen to Christians in the Middle East.

“When you see them on TV getting slaughtered that’s really really powerful,” Ayoub said.

He said he continued to lie and break the law even when the FBI knocked on his door with questions about campaign donations in 2017. Ayoub said in this interview, they only brought up the campaign donations to Romney, Issa and Terry, not Fortenberry. Ayoub said he lied in this interview and didn’t sleep that night.

“I felt very ashamed of what I did,” Ayoub said. “I failed my friends, I failed myself and I failed my values. What I did was against my values. I’m very ashamed about it.”

In exchange for not facing felony charges for making illegal donations and lying to the FBI, Ayoub began working for the FBI which he continues to do. This is where the recorded phone calls come in.

Ayoub described two phone calls between himself and Fortenberry that were recorded by the FBI. In one, he was directed by the FBI to tell Fortenberry about the illegal campaign contributions. In previous testimony, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Todd Carter testified that their goal in this call was to gauge Fortenberry’s response to the news to see if he knew, or cared, about the illegal donations.

In a recording of the call, Ayoub mentions getting $30,000 from Baaklini, probably from Chagoury for the 2016 fundraiser three times. Fortenberry doesn’t say anything about illegal donations or react to that information but continues on discussing wanting a second fundraiser.

Those phone calls are what sparked the FBI to interview Fortenberry and ask him if he was aware of illegal contributions. In those interviews, the FBI says the congressman lied because he said he wasn’t aware of any illegal donations despite that phone call with Ayoub.

The defense has said they don’t believe the congressman fully understood what Ayoub was telling him.

Alexandra Kendrick also testified, shedding more light on what the congressman’s campaign knew about the illegal donations before and after the fundraiser. Kendrick is a professional campaign fundraiser who was working for Fortenberry’s campaign in 2016. She testified that when she signed on, Fortenberry had the goal of getting more donations from PACS and from people who shared his passions and causes.

One of those causes was fighting for the safety of Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East. She said those goals are why Fortenberry was excited when he connected Kendrick and Baaklini to start planning the 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser.

“It was the first time somebody was willing to financially thank him for the good work he had done,” Kendrick said.

Kendrick said she began working with Ayoub to plan the event and almost immediately had concerns because she found out the event would be put on by a group of Americans born in Lebanon. Those concerns date back to a phone call Kendrick described getting while standing in the purse section of T.J. Maxx in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I’ll never forget it,” Kendrick said.

She said in that call, she was told a campaign she had been working on got illegal donations from a foreign national through conduits. This was not the Fortenberry campaign, but a different one.

“It’s worst case scenario to go through something like that,” Kendrick said. “To raise that money, to have that money deposited. It’s a betrayal.”

Kendrick said before, she told Fortenberry this story at least once, but she couldn’t remember any of the specific details.

Kendrick said during the course of planning the event with Ayoub and Baaklini she repeatedly tried to get information about who would be be attending the event and how much money would be donated. She told them she needed a minimum of $20,000 in donations. Ayoub and Baaklini both told her donations would exceed that minimum, but Ayoub never provided names. Telling her in an email “providing names was hard to do.”

Kendrick said not getting an RSVP list was a big red flag.

“We were dealing with a group of donors I didn’t know, had not dealt with before, were not born in the United States and I did not receive an RSVP list and the host was not very responsive,” Kendrick testified.

Many of the questions surrounded what about these concerns Kendrick relayed to Fortenberry. She testified she told Fortenberry she was unable to get an RSVP list at least one time in writing in a brief she provided to him ahead of the event.

Kendrick said at the event, many of the people attending brought in checks from their brothers, sisters or friends and she was unable to get the documentation she needed. Even after the event, she said she had to use Google to track down the occupations and employers of the donors. While she had email communications with Ayoub and a Fortenberry staffer about these struggles, she did not remember specifically telling Fortenberry about them.

Just before wrapping Monday afternoon, the prosecution called Special Agent James O’Leary with IRS Criminal Divisions. O’Leary didn’t get into his role in this investigation, but will be called back to the stand Tuesday. The prosecution will call Special Agent Edward Choe Tuesday after O’Leary. Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Harr said Choe’s testimony will cover the interviews with Fortenberry and the rest of the investigation.

After that, the prosecution plans to rest it’s case and turn it over to the defense. Defense Attorney John Littrell said he has several witnesses, most from out of town. He said their case will likely take nine to ten hours to present.

CATCH UP: FBI Agent testimony continues in Fortenberry trial

CATCH UP: Attorneys, FBI agent break down phone call where Fortenberry was told about potential illegal activity

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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