Congresswoman: US representative accused of lying is ‘honest’


A Democratic congresswoman from California testified Wednesday that a Republican aide from Nebraska who has been accused of lying to the FBI over a $30,000 illegal campaign donation from a Nigerian-born billionaire is honest and respectful.

US Representative Anna Eshu, who represents the Silicon Valley region, said she learned of US Representative Jeff Fortenberry when they worked together on issues related to persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“I think he brings respect for what he does,” said Ishu. “He is honest. His work is good. I cannot say the same about all members of Congress. … My sensitivity is that he brings honesty in everything he does.”

Eshu was the first defense witness called in Fortenberry’s trial in US District Court in Los Angeles, when prosecutors prosecuted her on charges she lied to investigators about a $30,000 contribution she received through straw donors.

Fortenberry, 61, facing re-election, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he knowingly misled FBI agents and prosecutors who were investigating the 2016 donation. It is illegal for US politicians to accept foreign money.

Prosecutors allege that Fortenberry lied about what he knew during an interview at his Lincoln home and a follow-up meeting in Washington and did not properly disclose the contributions he received to the Los Angeles fundraiser.

Defense lawyers said Fortenberry was “set up” by FBI agents who ambushed members of Congress following a national investigation into foreign funding. He said his only mistake was meeting agents and prosecutors.

Trey Gaudi, a former Republican from South Carolina who initially represented Fortenberry, testified that Fortenberry tried to help federal prosecutors with their investigation.

Gaudi said he left a voicemail to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mac Jenkins to report that Fortenberry had met Gilbert Chagouri, the source of the donation, at several places, including a dinner together in France.

Chagouri, who lives in Paris, admitted to funneling $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions across four campaigns in 2019 and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.

At the heart of the case are Chagauri and other prominent figures from In Defense of Christians, a non-profit organization that Fortenberry supported.

Gaudi said he told Jenkins that Chagouri was not present at a campaign fundraiser for Fortenberry at a Los Angeles doctor’s home.

Dr. Ilyas Ayoob testified Monday that he distributed $30,000 in cash from a brown paper bag that had come to friends and relatives from a Chagauri aide who wrote checks to Fortenberry’s campaign. Gaudi said that there was nothing to Fortenberry about the money raised at the event.

“There was nothing strange in his mind with the amount raised and the number of people present,” Gaudi said.

During an interview with federal prosecutors and agents in July 2019, Fortenberry said it would be “terrible” if Ayoob told investigators that his campaign received $30,000 in cash and that it probably came from Chagouri.

“It was a very important moment in the interview,” Gaudi said. “He used the word frightening. I would use shock. Shock with the subtext of anger.”

Fortenberry’s chief of staff, Andrew Branner, testified as the day’s final witness, saying that his boss was “one of the last great statesmen” and a “visionary” who was widely respected for his honesty and integrity. .

Branner testified that in April 2019 he declined an envelope of cash someone had tried to hand him and Fortenberry was furious when he learned of the incident. He called the staff to the House Sergeant at Arms, the Capitol Police and the FBI, who all quickly rushed to the office to investigate.

“He was quick to make sure that never happened,” Branner said.

During the cross-examination, Assistant US Attorney J. Jamri Buxton said the date of that incident was a month after Fortenberry was first questioned by the FBI about possible money-related crimes.

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