FBI Agent testimony continues in Fortenberry trial
LOS ANGELES, Calif. (KOLN) - Congressman Jeff Fortenberry is accused of lying about a $30,000 illegal campaign contribution in 2016 and Friday, jurors in his trial, heard from the man who helped funnel that money.
Toufic Baaklini, a U.S. citizen with foreign ties, testified that he and Fortenberry were close friends with a shared passion of protecting Christians in the Middle East. Baaklini told the court he is a Christian, born in Lebanon and his experiences lead him to move to the United States and form a non-profit, actions that would lead him to a Los Angeles Courthouse for Fortenberry’s trial.
In direct examination by Jamari Buxton, Baaklini shared the story of receiving $50,000 in a cash envelope from Gilbert Chagoury’s son in early February 2016. The purpose of $30,000 of that money was to “help Fortenberry with his fundraiser.”
Buxton asked Baaklini if he knew it was illegal for foreign nationals, like Chagoury to donate to political campaigns in the United States, Baaklini said yes. Despite this, Baaklini passed the money off to Dr. Elias Ayoub, an L.A.-based Lebanese doctor. He testified that there was an understanding that the money would be donated to Fortenberry’s campaign in Dr. Ayoub’s name and others’ names. Baakini also testified that he knew conduit donations were illegal.
This donation wasn’t the beginning of Baaklini’s relationship with Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. He described him as a quote “a very good friend to me.”
Baaklini said the two met after he founded the organization In Defense of Christians, or IDC. The group, which Baaklini headed until recently, had the goal of fighting persecution of Christians in the Middle East. The organization was based in Washington D.C. and worked to get the support of Congressmen.
Fortenberry’s first interaction with IDC involved him giving a speech at IDC’s first summit in 2014. A summit Baaklini said Chagoury bank-rolled.
“From what I remember his speech was in support of Christians and Yazidis in the Middle East,” Baaklini said. “It was very supportive and that’s what I remember. I don’t remember the exact words.”
The two became closer friends a few months after the speech in 2014 in a meeting at the Capitol to discuss IDC and its causes. From there, they communicated often. The prosecution introduced a photo of Baaklini and Fortenberry together on a bench and several text exchanges between the two. Many of the messages shown involve Fortenberry asking Baaklini for campaign donations.
Baaklini also shared more information about his friendship with Gilbert Chagoury. He told the jury he’s known Chagoury for more than 20 years and the Lebanese businessman is “like a brother to him.” Chagoury, lives in Paris, and also shares the goal of protecting Christians in the Middle East. So much so that Baaklini said Chagoury paid for the first IDC summit in 2014.
Eventually, Chagoury became aware of Fortenberry. Baaklini arranged a meeting for the two of them in Paris before the 2016 fundraiser.
We learned more about what happened after the fundraiser. The prosecution showed messages between Alexandra Kendrick, with the Fortenberry campaign, and Fortenberry.
First, the reactions are positive. An email from Kendrick to Baaklini said:
“We had an amazing time in LA and came home with $36,000 in hand. Thank you very much for ALL of your help. YOU ARE WONDERFUL. I owe you a BIG thank you.”
A message from Fortenberry after the fundraiser said:
I’ll call tomorrow. LA was great. We missed you!
But then, Baaklini said Fortenberry asked him in person if there was any problem with the fundraiser because he noticed all of the donors had the same last name, Ayoub. Baaklini told Fortenberry there was nothing wrong. Buxton asked Baaklini if this was a true statement to which Baaklini replied that it wasn’t accurate.
Concerns weren’t raised again until 2018. When Congressman Fortenberry called campaign finance lawyer, Jessica Furst Johnson, after the recorded phone call between Dr. Ayoub and Fortenberry.
That call was played in court again. In it, Dr. Ayoub brought up the $30,000 donation several times. Fortenberry didn’t react in the call, but lawyer Furst Johnson said she got a call from Fortenberry.
Furst Johnson testified she doesn’t remember the details of the call as she was in the middle of an alumni meeting in Gainesville, Florida. She said she doesn’t remember him mentioning anything about illegal donations.
“I wouldn’t miss that,” Furst Johnson said.
Defense Attorney Glen Summers pointed out that Fortenberry had called Furst Johnson worried about campaign donations often, usually when he had no reason to be concerned. He pointed out that she said she was “annoyed” to be talking to Fortenberry.
Baaklini will be called to testify again Monday morning.
Before Baaklini and Furst Johnson were called to testify, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Todd Carter took the stand to finish cross-examination, fielding dozens of questions from defense attorney Glen Summers. Many of those questions revolved around how the FBI conducted their investigation into Fortenberry’s campaign contribution.
Summers asked Carter if the FBI asked Dr. Elias Ayoub, who hosted the event, if he knew whether or not Fortenberry was aware of illegal contributions. Carter testified Dr. Ayoub said he didn’t know.
Summers also asked why the FBI didn’t schedule an interview with congressman Fortenberry instead of surprising him at this home. He also asked Carter why the FBI simply didn’t pull the congressman aside and warn him of illegal activity, treating him as a victim in the case not the criminal.
“Nothing prevents you from stopping a crime,” Summers asked.
In response, prosecutor Mack Jenkins confirmed with Carter that Fortenberry was being investigated for crimes including bribery and illegal election contributions and that the set-up phone call with Dr. Ayoub did serve as a warning.
Summers continued to try and nail down how the FBI knew exactly what Fortenberry understood in that phone call, saying that the congressman didn’t repeat back information about illegal donations Dr. Ayoub alluded to, and instead continued talking about the same fundraiser he had spoken with Dr. Ayoub about in an earlier phone call.
Summers took that to mean the congressman didn’t fully register the information about illegal activity, even though he asked his wife and members of his team if he should be concerned after the call. In opening statements, Summers said nobody on Fortenberry’s team expressed concern or took action. Those staffers are expected to be called as witnesses in the prosecution’s case.
Carter testified that he took Fortenberry’s lack of reaction as an admission of some knowledge on the illegal donations.
Carter and Summers also dove into the bribery portion of the investigation. Fortenberry is not, and never has been, charged with burglary, but the FBI looked into ties between the campaign fundraiser and HR 75, a piece of legislation dealing with genocide.
Carter, in testimony and FBI documents, said they believed the genocide legislation was introduced shortly after the February fundraiser, but the defense showed documentation that showed the legislation was introduced by Fortenberry long before the fundraiser. In fact, it had been introduced to the senate, not congress, a month after the fundraiser.
“It passed unanimously in house of representatives because it was denouncing genocide, pretty easy thing to get behind,” Summers said.
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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