Meet the donors at the heart of the latest indictment against a congressman

Meet the donors at the heart of the latest indictment against a congressman

Baaklini’s LinkedIn page lists him as the president of In Defense of Christians, a group that controversial billionaire Gilbert Chagoury says he “instigated and funded”. Chagoury is a controversial businessman, ambassador and self-proclaimed international diplomat who has been sending money to various political causes for years. But his actions landed him when he was accused of illegally sending money through intermediaries, such as Baaklini, to US officials, including Fortenberry, not long after he coordinated a lobbying campaign for the Nigerian government.

The FBI finally indicted Fortenberry Wednesday on charges that he lied to the FBI about his knowledge of the origin of those donations. Fortenberry pleaded not guilty and was ordered to pay $50,000 in bail. His trial is scheduled for December.

At a hearing in Los Angeles on Wednesday, at which Fortenberry appeared via video conference, his attorney continued to deny the charges. He said he plans to dismiss the case, suppress statements by Fortenberry “because he was misled” and disqualify the prosecutor in the case “because he will in fact be a witness”.

A longtime lawyer for Chagoury, who represented him in the recent case, said he was unable to comment on a former client. Baaklini also did not return a request for comment via LinkedIn. A Fortenberry spokesperson declined to comment.

Perry, a Republican from California, faces no such charges. His campaign said it returned the donations when the congressman “was made aware of the allegations against Mr. Baaklini.” The Federal Election Commission website has no report of the return yet. The campaign said the returns would be reflected in its unveiling in January 2022.

Baaklini was ultimately a go-between for Chagoury, who spent years cultivating a presence on the American political scene, despite a series of controversies that at one point earned him a spot on the no-fly list. The Clinton Foundation considers Chagoury a major donor, having given between $1,000,001 and $5 million. According to his own lawsuit, he has given millions to the Clinton Global Initiative. Documents released by the conservative activist group Judicial Watch ahead of the 2016 election show that a Clinton Foundation official induced a senior aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arrange a meeting between Chagoury and a official of the Obama administration. It is not clear whether that conversation took place.

Chagoury also targeted other Obama administration officials, including former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood who admitted to accepting a $50,000 check from Baaklini in 2012, despite knowing the money came from Chagoury. LaHood did not report the check because he does not want to be associated with the controversial billionaire, the Justice Department said. He later agreed to work with investigators and paid back the $50,000 to Baaklini.

In a 2016 lawsuit against the FBI and other government agencies, lawyers for Chagoury note that the billionaire was denied a visa by the State Department because officials believed he had provided “material aid” to terrorism. However, he claimed that this decision was based on false information, an “injustice” exacerbated by an agent who leaked the information to the Los Angeles Times. In his complaint, Chagoury claims he has been granted permission to “associate with many current and former officials, including President William J. Clinton.”

Chagoury later struck a deal in which the government acknowledged that he was never on a US sanctions list.

It is not immediately clear what purpose Chagoury was seeking with his access to American politicians. But records from the Foreign Agents Registration Act provide some insight into his plea.

Around 2015, Chagoury enlisted DC power brokers to promote Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who ran for reelection and has since been accused of corruption. Chagoury brought in the company run by Republican crisis communications officer Mark Corallo, who later became spokesperson for Donald Trump’s legal team. Corallo’s firm engaged several additional firms to handle public relations or arrange meetings between lawmakers and Hill employees and members of Jonathan’s administration, according to FARA files. All meetings were canceled due to inclement weather, except for one with Rep. Chris Smith (RN.J.). Baaklini donated $1,000 to Smith’s campaign in October 2019, after the investigation into Chagoury’s plan began but before the results of the investigation, or its existence, were made public.

Corallo’s firm also engaged 4ImpactLLC, which is listed as Baaklini’s employer in disclosures to the Federal Elections Commission, to contact Chagoury. NWG Public Affairs, a firm headed by former Rep. Jerry Weller, organized meetings on Capitol Hill. Weller is a member of the In Defense of Christians’ Congressional Advisory Board, according to the group’s website.

Chagoury has also been linked to the late Sani Abacha, a Nigerian military leader and dictator who also faced corruption charges. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2008 that the billionaire agreed to return money to the Nigerian government amid a government investigation into corruption during Abacha’s regime. According to a 1997 Washington Post report, he also found his way to a holiday dinner at the White House during the Clinton administration, months after giving $460,000 to a DNC-approved voter registration group.

Fortenberry is the only current member legally mired in the case, but so far he has been getting strong support from his colleagues, who have argued that the GOP congressman is the victim of an ambitious prosecutor, Mack Jenkins of the Central District of California, who is trying to make a name for himself.

“I didn’t even see it, but Fortenberry sounds like he’s been framed,” said Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “I believe Jeff.”

They also vouched for the character of their colleague.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), a member of the GOP leadership, described Fortenberry as “one of the most righteous people” he knows, adding that he is “concerned” for Fortenberry and “shocked” to hear about the charge.

Despite the charges, Fortenberry appeared before House votes on Monday, shortly after being indicted. His wife joined him in the Capitol. And his colleagues approached him on the floor of the House and patted him on the shoulder.

Fortenberry’s ties to Chagoury stem from a fundraiser on February 20, 2016 in Los Angeles. The indictment doesn’t say it directly, but on the same day Fortenberry attended the fundraiser, he was pictured at an event in his honor in Glendale, Calif., hosted by members of the Southern California branch of the In Defense of Christians group, according to the group’s website. In 2015, Chagoury was still in defense of Christian’s honorary chairman, and Corallo, who helped coordinate a media and lobbying campaign on Chagoury’s behalf, currently sits on the board of directors.

The group maintains a relationship with members of Congress who spoke at the recent summit. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) were named honorary co-chairs of the event. The executive director of In Defense of Christians has not returned a request for comment regarding his ties to Chagoury and the case against his president.

A Mediafrolic analysis of FEC records previously showed that the individual donations Chagoury made in the past also went to other Republicans. This includes $100,000 in gifts in 2012 that match those of a Mitt Romney presidential campaign fund, $30,000 in Rep. Darrell Issa in 2014, $10,000 to former Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).

Before he could even be asked if he was also receiving donations from Chagoury, Issa intervened. “No, I don’t have the same problems [as Fortenberry],” he said. “I made no statements against an FBI — or anything.”

He declined to expand on the funds he received from Chagoury. “Well,” he said, “I’m not doing an interview.”

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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