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GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry convicted of lying to FBI about foreign donation

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) was found guilty on Thursday of lying to federal investigators about an illegal contribution made to his campaign by a foreign billionaire.

The nine-term congressman was convicted in federal court on three felony counts, with jurors returning a verdict after less than three hours of deliberations. Fortenberry faces up to five years in prison on each count, in addition to fines. His sentencing is set for June 28.

Prosecutors said Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman living in France, contributed $30,000 through intermediaries at a 2016 fundraiser for Fortenberry in Glendale, California. Fortenberry, the prosecutors alleged, later lied to FBI officials about it, claiming he never knew about the donation.

Fortenberry's defense attorney argued that his client might not have had clear cellphone reception when the fundraiser's organizer, Elias Ayoub, called him in 2018 and named Chagoury as the source of the funds, Politico reports. While Fortenberry didn't testify, his wife, Celeste, did, and said because her husband is always so busy, he might not have been paying close attention during the call with Ayoub.

At the time of their conversation, Ayoub was working with the FBI, and recorded his chat with Fortenberry. In 2019, FBI agents went to Fortenberry's home, and secretly videotaped him while asking about the fundraiser. Fortenberry denied knowing anything about foreign money being donated to his campaign.