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LOS ANGELES — For the first time, the public — and more importantly, jurors — heard an overview of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s defense in his court case, with an attorney disputing the notion that Fortenberry knew about foreign contributions to his campaign and tried to cover them up.
The defense, presented Thursday, involved: a chaotic family home, an “ambush” of Fortenberry by FBI agents, a distracted Fortenberry being told about the foreign money in a phone call, an honor allowing him to ride a horse into churches, and a strange graphic showing how cellphones connect.
And this: The idea that Fortenberry was trying to help, not hinder, the FBI.
“He is absolutely and completely innocent of everything he is charged with,” attorney Glen Summers told jurors.
In a wide-ranging opening statement in Fortenberry’s felony federal trial, Summers — a Denver-based defense trial specialist brought in by Fortenberry’s defense team — touched on the events surrounding the fundraiser that has the ninth-term congressman facing three felony charges.
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Summers introduced Fortenberry’s family, including Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, his five daughters and a baby granddaughter in a stroller.
He mentioned that the Lebanese Catholic community had bestowed on Fortenberry an “Order of St. Gregory” — a medal that would allow him to ride a horse into any Catholic church. “It was quite an honor,” Summers said.
He showed a picture of Celeste Fortenberry cracking open the front door on a Friday night when FBI agents first sought to interview Fortenberry. An “ambush,” he said, drawing an objection that was sustained by U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr.
The reality, Summers said, was that Fortenberry didn’t lie, didn’t cover up anything and tried his “level best” to answer FBI agents’ questions.
“Precisely the opposite” of what he’s accused of, Summers said.
Summers said the four-year investigation turned up just $180,000 in foreign cash into U.S. campaigns, including those of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, former U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska and Fortenberry. All of those other Republican politicians returned the cash and were not prosecuted. Fortenberry took two years to give back the money.
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But Summers told jurors Fortenberry wasn’t aware that a Nigerian billionaire living in Paris, Gilbert Chagoury, had donated $30,000 of the $36,000 raised at a February 2016 dinner at a suburban Los Angeles home.
Summers suggested that Dr. Eli Ayoub, a Los Angeles-area ear, nose and throat specialist, wasn’t at all clear when he said that the $30,000 in cash “probably came from” Chagoury.
The attorney even included a chart of a cellphone, a cellphone tower and something resembling signals getting crossed. Summers acknowledged the graphic was “a bit much.” The point? No one can say what Fortenberry could actually hear on his end.
Summers mocked the name of the task force looking into foreign donations: Operation Titans Grip. Summers gave the operation a different name: “A big nothing burger.”
“Guess how many prosecutions it turned up? Zero,” Summers said.
In his own opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamari Buxton, one of three prosecutors, took jurors on a path of where the money came from and where he says Fortenberry went wrong.
In 2014, Toufic Baaklini, a U.S. citizen of Lebanese descent, started In Defense of Christians. IDC was designed to protect Christians from persecution in the Middle East.
One of its first major donors: Chagoury. Also of Lebanese descent, Chagoury owned a number of businesses and came to prominence in Nigeria. Now living in Paris, he has been tied to some of the biggest corruption scandals in Nigeria, including his support for a one-time Nigerian dictator.
He provided seed money for IDC and was named its honorary chairman.
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Soon after, Fortenberry attracted the attention of the group. He had some experience in Middle East relations, sponsoring a substantive piece of legislation: a resolution that provided funding for small-business startups in both the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Baaklini connected with Fortenberry, and certainly had some sway with the Nebraska congressman. Fortenberry joked at dinners about his — and everyone else’s — inability to say no to Baaklini.
Some have referred to the circumstances surrounding this case as a “pay for play,” i.e., giving money to a congressman and getting a federal boost or earmark for one’s project or cause.
The play Baaklini was seeking in Fortenberry’s case was symbolic: a resolution opposing persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Some have cast that as its own “nothing burger” since it involved no government aid or official action. Even so, Baaklini was thrilled that he had gotten congressional support for what he later would refer to as “the cause.”
In turn, Fortenberry asked Baaklini if he would do something for him: host a campaign fundraiser.
Soon after, Baaklini connected with Ayoub, referred to pre-trial by prosecutors by the moniker Individual H, who arranged for a dinner at a Glendale home.
Fortenberry campaign consultant Alexandra Kendrick joined the fray. In early February 2016, Baaklini introduced Ayoub to Kendrick as the host of the L.A. fundraiser. In the leadup to the fundraiser, Kendrick “repeatedly emphasized to (Fortenberry) the potential risk of illegal foreign and conduit contributions with this event,” prosecutors said.
She “relayed … a ‘cautionary tale’ in which she coordinated for a different client a fundraiser that similarly had ties with foreign nationals from the same community. (She) later learned that the contributions from that event were illegal foreign and conduit contributions,” prosecutors said.
Those gathered at the fundraiser were of Lebanese descent. The next day, they gave Fortenberry the honor that allowed him to ride horses into churches.
But Summers said there was nothing wrong with the events of that weekend, including the fundraiser.
“The fundraiser seemed totally uneventful,” Summers said.
Except this: Fortenberry noticed that many of the checks were written from the same family: relatives of Ayoub.
Ayoub, who was funneling Chagoury’s money, eventually started cooperating with the FBI and placed a 10-minute recorded phone call with Fortenberry.
“The government is going to have you assume he heard every word,” Summers said, “but there’s no evidence of that.”
After Fortenberry was told in that phone call that the money “probably” came from Chagoury, Summers said Fortenberry contacted, or tried to contact, four people in relation to the donations: his wife, Celeste; his then-chief of staff; Baaklini, who didn’t take his call; and a campaign attorney, Jessica Furst Johnson.
Summers said Fortenberry was known to contact Furst Johnson so much on insignificant matters that it seemed he was “always crying wolf.” In the 2018 phone call, Summers said, Furst Johnson was at a Florida Gators football tailgate and was distracted.
Fortenberry sought advice on what Ayoub had said, Summers said. Furst Johnson reportedly has a different recollection of what was asked, saying it was vague.
“She basically blows him off,” Summers said. “So he had no reason to be concerned because his election lawyer said, ‘No big deal, don’t worry about it.’”
Summers noted that Fortenberry had $1.5 million in his campaign coffers. There was no reason for him to stubbornly cling to $30,000, Summers said.
The first FBI interview was chaotic in that Fortenberry had just gotten back from a trip to Europe and Africa where he was, among other things, learning about the poaching of elephants. Fortenberry also had been touring flooded areas. He was jet-lagged and upset that FBI agents had showed up at his Lincoln home.
Fortenberry sought the second interview to try to clarify matters. He sat for two hours, Summers said, trying to answer all the feds’ questions.
Prosecutors say Fortenberry was far from candid. On the 10-minute phone call, when it was revealed that the money “probably” came from Chagoury, Fortenberry responded: “No problem.”
“This is a case about choice — a series of choices that he made that led him down a path of lies and concealment,” Buxton said.
Buxton said Fortenberry had several chances to take “an off ramp,” to come clean and return the illegal money. He didn’t do so for more than two years.
Buxton also pointed out that Fortenberry asked Baaklini to hold a second fundraiser for him in 2018. In the two interviews, Buxton said, FBI agents were testing his credibility, testing whether he would be forthright with investigators.
“He could choose to tell the truth, knowing it would place his political career” in jeopardy, Buxton said. “Or he could choose to lie to protect himself, protect his political life.
“It was a test the defendant repeatedly failed.”
Summers mocked whether it actually was a credibility test. Nine months had passed from the secretly recorded phone call to the FBI’s interview. Fortenberry couldn’t be expected to remember what he was told in that 10-minute phone call.
“They say they tried to set up a test for honesty,” Summers said. “In reality, they set up a memory test. They waited for months and set up a memory test.”
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