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Rep. Fortenberry fights criminal charges while seeking reelection

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry is in federal court today, accused of accepting illegal campaign donations and lying about it. He's facing these charges while also in a challenge to keep his seat. Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media News reports.

BILL KELLY, BYLINE: Last October, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry released a video on YouTube to let Nebraska know he'd been indicted by a federal grand jury.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF FORTENBERRY: I wanted to send you a video because we do have something hard to tell you.

KELLY: Fortenberry sits in the cab of his pickup next to his wife and hunting dog. He explained FBI agents interviewed him about accepting illegal campaign donations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORTENBERRY: They've accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this. We're shocked. We're stunned.

KELLY: The story begins in 2014. Fortenberry championed the cause of the Christian minority facing persecution in the Middle East, one favored by Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-born industrialist living in Nigeria. Anna Massoglia researched the billionaire's donations for OpenSecrets.org.

ANNA MASSOGLIA: He's been a quiet figure since the 1990s. He had been involved in contributions to the Clintons. He has given to both sides of the aisles.

KELLY: In court documents, prosecutors say Chagoury made payments to a group of American citizens, who then wrote checks to Fortenberry at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles, becoming so-called straw donors.

MASSOGLIA: This happens because foreign nationals are prohibited from getting involved in U.S. elections, pushing for specific candidates.

KELLY: Prosecutors say the FBI secretly recorded the host of the fundraiser telling Fortenberry more than once the contributions originated with Chagoury, who legally could not donate as a foreign national. Sometime later, the congressman got the knock on the door at his home in Nebraska, as he explained from the cab of his pickup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORTENBERRY: They were FBI agents from California. I let them in my house. I answered their questions. Later, we went back and answered further questions. I told them what I knew and what I understood.

KELLY: Chagoury had already admitted knowing the scheme was illegal, according to a plea bargain filed in federal court. He struck a deal, avoiding criminal charges. After a second FBI interview, Fortenberry was charged with lying to federal agents. He returned the donations once he learned he was being investigated. Days after being indicted, a state senator announced a primary election campaign and won the endorsement of Governor Pete Ricketts. Fortenberry's defense team says the investigation was a political setup, skimming over the fact that the billionaire Chagoury sought influence across the political spectrum in Washington.

LAURIE LEVENSON: I think the Department of Justice is developing zero tolerance for those who would violate the rules and then lie about it.

KELLY: Former U.S. attorney and Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson says $30,000 is a small case, but it sends a message to public officials.

LEVENSON: Where Fortenberry really got himself in trouble was lying. And that's what the prosecutors have gone after him about. They don't need to bring a bribery charge. They don't have to show the quid pro quo. They just have to show the lie.

KELLY: Prosecutors say Gilbert Chagoury was advised to donate to rural lawmakers because small donations make a big impression in those campaigns. The congressman faces a maximum of 15 years in prison on three federal charges.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Kelly in Lincoln, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZER'S "HARLESDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.