FBI Agent Admits Lying To Fortenberry To Obtain Interview

LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) (Mach 22, 2022) -The charges brought against congressman Jeff Fortenberry hinge on lies the U.S. Government accuses Fortenberry of telling during interviews with the FBI about illegal contributions made to his 2016 campaign.

In a Los Angeles courtroom Tuesday, a jury watched a recording of one of those interviews. Special Agent James O’Leary, with the IRS, testified that he and FBI agent Todd Carter showed up to Fortenberry’s Lincoln home in March 2019. Fortenberry wasn’t home, but his wife Celeste was.

O’Leary said he and Carter lied to Celeste and to the Congressman in a voicemail, telling them the were there from the Omaha FBI Field Office and were there to conduct a “background interview with a national security component.”

When they showed back up to Fortenberry’s home later that day, O’Leary said they were greeted by two Lincoln Police officers who verified their information and a very upset Fortenberry. Prosecutor Jamari Buxton played a video clip agents captured secretly during that interview.

“Because of the nature of your inquiry, the surprising lack of professionalism this has resulted in us calling local police wasting their time,” Fortenberry said in the recording. “Your message was unidentifiable, then you come to my door and refuse to identify yourself other than your badge…we’ve gotten death threats, I have small children.”

In the recording, Fortenberry agreed to do an interview, but told investigators he wasn’t in the right frame of mind because of how their interaction began. The recording showed investigators apologized for causing alarm.

Then they reminded Fortenberry that lying to the FBI is illegal.

During the recording interview, O’Leary said they showed Fortenberry various photos of people with associations to organization In Defense of Christians, including photos of Toufic Baaklini, Gilbert Chagoury and others. They also showed a photo of who they believed to be Dr. Elias Ayoub, but Fortenberry couldn’t recognize him from the photo.

When discussing who the FBI believed to be Dr. Ayoub, Fortenberry said he knew of an Ayoub who had donated to him but didn’t bring up a fundraiser until later in the interview, clarifying that he didn’t remember exactly and would need to double check.

Fortenberry also said in the interview that he understood foreign and conduit donations were illegal.

In the recording, when Fortenberry was first asked if he was aware of any illegal contributions to his campaign, he didn’t answer, saying “at this point you’re starting to accuse me of something.”

Then about 30 minutes into the interview, Fortenberry brought up the phone call with Dr. Ayoub. He said they had two phone calls recently. In the recording Fortenberry said one of those calls was about a football game and Dr. Ayoub visiting, another was about organizing a second fundraiser that never ended up happening.

O’Leary said this point was important because it showed Fortenberry remembered the phone call the FBI had recorded where Dr. Ayoub told Fortenberry about the illegal campaign donations.

Next in the interview, Carter asked Fortenberry directly if he was aware of any illegal campaign contributions, through Dr. Ayoub, through Baaklini or from Chagoury. He said he wasn’t aware of any of those.

“I’m a little hard pressed because you’re making me go off of memory and this isn’t a community I know intimately,” Fortenberry said in the recording.

The prosecution will continue to dissect this interview and call one more witness before resting their case.

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.