Witnesses break down recordings of interviews where the FBI says Fortenberry lied

Fortenberry(Mona Edwards)
Published: Mar. 22, 2022 at 1:33 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 22, 2022 at 2:55 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Blurry video shows Congressman Jeff Fortenberry sitting in a chair in his living room, a full bookshelf beside him and a floral curtain in the background.

That video comes from a secret recording the FBI did of a March 2019 interview with Fortenberry that the felony charges he faces hinges on. This recording is one of two jurors heard Tuesday.

Interview 1: March 23, 2019

IRS Investigator James O’Leary testified that he and FBI Supervisory Special Agent Todd Carter arrived at Congressman Fortenberry’s Lincoln home around 1 in the afternoon. Fortenberry wasn’t home, but his wife Celeste was.

O’Leary testified that he and Carter told Celeste they were agents from the Omaha FBI Field Office there to conduct a background investigation that had a national security component. This was a lie. They told the same lie to Fortenberry in a voicemail and said they’d come back later.

O’Leary told the jury lies like this are part of standard practice in investigations. He said they told the lie to get in Fortenberry’s house and so he’d agree to talk to them.

But he also testified that when the investigators came back to the Fortenberry’s home after 8 that night, they were greeted by Lincoln Police Officers and a very upset Congressman. This is when the agents started secretly recording their interactions with Fortenberry.

The recording captures Fortenberry telling the agents how upset he was with how the interview was handled.

“Because of the nature of your inquiring, the surprising lack of professionalism, this has resulted in us calling local police, wasting their time,” Fortenberry said. “Your message was unidentifiable, then you come to my door and refuse to identify yourself.. we have 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, 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.

In further recordings played by the defense, Fortenberry did bring up that Dr. Ayoub told him they’d have to ask Chagoury about future events, but Fortenberry said he didn’t know what that meant and he didn’t remember additional details. The defense played another clip where Fortenberry brought up general concerns about the L.A. event, but Agent Carter told him “you either know or you don’t know” and Fortenberry said he didn’t know.

Interview 2: July 18, 2019

After the first interview, Congressman Fortenberry requested a second interview with the FBI to provide additional details. Special Agent Edward Choe, who was present at the interview and is the current case agent testified about this interview.

The prosecution played an audio recording of this interview for the jury. In it, Mack Jenkins, assistant U.S. Attorney and prosecutor on the case first told Fortenberry that he could stop the interview or ask questions at any time, but couldn’t lie, because lying is a federal crime.

The investigators started out by asking Fortenberry how he knew people affiliated with In Defense of Christians, like Gilbert Chagoury, Elias Ayoub or Toufic Baaklini. Fortenberry identified all three. A few things stood out to Choe, first that Fortenberry clearly remembered Ayoub and that he knew Chagoury wasn’t a U.S. Citizen.

In this interview, unlike the first, Fortenberry brought up the fundraiser Ayoub held for him and mentioned the 2018 phone call. This is where investigators started asking Fortenberry about illegal campaign contributions.

Fortenberry told them that in the June phone call with Ayoub, Ayoub mentioned something about Gilbert Chagoury and a future fundraiser. Fortenberry told investigators those comments caused him concern so he didn’t proceed with another fundraiser.

Fortenberry also told the investigators he ended the phone call after those statements. Choe said that’s not true, that Fortenberry stayed on the phone for six more minutes, through two more mentions of illegal money before ending the call.

Choe said in the interview, Fortenberry didn’t say anything about a $30,000 cash donation made through conduit donors, even though that’s what Ayoub told him on the phone in 2018.

When asked directly if he got $30,000 in foreign money through conduit donors, Fortenberry asked agents if that’s what happened. He also said if he was told that it would be “horrifying.”

Choe said during these questions, the congressman seemed bothered or agitated and continued to say he wasn’t aware of illegal donations.

Choe said during these investigations, they also monitored Fortenberry’s filings with the Federal Election Commission. He said after the 2018 phone call, Fortenberry didn’t amend his reports to reflect money had come from a foreign national and he didn’t officially disgorge the donations. He said after the July interview, however, the congressman made a $30,000 donation to charity, but didn’t say why that donation was made.

Tomorrow the defense will get a chance to cross examine Agent Choe, then they’ll start calling their own witnesses.

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