On Tuesday, October 19, Jeff Fortenberry was indicted on three federal charges connected to his receiving and then lying about illegal campaign contributions funneled from Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury through conduits.
Early reporting by the national media claimed that Chagoury told prosecutors he had been advised to select representatives from low population states, where his money would wield more influence. While Chagoury may have said this to prosecutors, this is not the reason he chose Fortenberry as a donation target, nor did Fortenberry accept the money merely because it was offered.
Both Chagoury and Fortenberry have a shared passion: aiding Christians–specifically Catholics–in religious minority communities around the globe. In fact, this seems to be one of Fortenberry’s only persistent interests, and it appears to be the top policy concern of Chagoury.
During his 17 years in Congress, Fortenberry, who has a master’s in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, has managed to get a grand total of four bills passed: one established a visitor center for a historic site in Nebraska. One created a commemorative coin for Boys Town, the Catholic institution in Omaha. One allowed for the accelerated adoption of Haitian orphans–or perhaps more accurately, “orphans”–legislation that has received much criticism for funneling children with living parents into US homes via religious adoption agencies without proper vetting. Finally, Fortenberry’s DELTA Act protects elephants in the Okavango River Basin, a laudable goal. Yet one can’t help but notice that Fortenberry is hardly an environmentalist, and that the DELTA Act specifically provides for funds to go to “donors, the private sector, and local, regional, and nongovernmental entities” in the area that includes the heavily Catholic nation of Angola.
Beyond his lackluster legislative accomplishments, Fortenberry has maintained what seems to some of his constituents to be a strange focus on specific religious affairs in foreign countries. For example, Fortenberry has traveled many times to conferences for international far-right “family” organizations. In 2017 he was on the schedule to speak in Budapest, Hungary at the World Congress of Families, the international hate group that pushed the notorious Russian law that criminalizes any advocacy of homosexuality. It seems that Fortenberry had himself removed from the conference program before it took place as he began to catch heat for his involvement.
In 2018, working with Mike Pence, Fortenberry travelled to Northern Iraq to study the plight of persecuted religious groups there–specifically Yazidis and Christians. He supported Pence’s effort to direct federal aid funds specifically to Christians in the area. This was decried by USAID officials as both unconstitutional, as it favored one religious group over others, and also counterproductive, as favoring one persecuted community actually exacerbates sectarian violence.
If you were a billionaire looking to get a US Congressman in your pocket to pass pet legislation, Fortenberry would be a poor pick–he has a completely unimpressive record for passing bills.
However, he could be exactly the right guy if your motives were somewhat different.
Chagoury is himself a Maronite Catholic, as were his Lebanese parents. After Chagoury was denied a visa to travel to the US in 2015 (for his alleged support of Hezbollah), he filed a lawsuit in which he described himself as “a devout Catholic” who is “an Ambassador to the Holy See” who has devoted “much of his life to the security and religious liberty of the Christians of the Middle East.” Chagoury has also donated large sums of money to the renovation of a Maronite Catholic Church in Paris.
Chagoury funneled $30,000 into Fortenberry’s 2016 reeleciton campaign by having multiple “conduits”–that is, people acting on his behalf–make smaller donations to Fortenberry, which is illegal both because foreign donors cannot contribute to campaigns and because using conduits are illegal. These donations were secured at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, where Fortenberry was being honored for his contributions to religious minorities by a Lebanese-American community group. The donors included at least three apparent conduits from one family, the Elias Ayoub family, who are Maronite Catholics originally from Lebanon.
At the fundraising dinner, Fortenberry was also granted a knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory, which is authorized by the pope. Notably, Chagoury is not only an ambassador to the Vatican but is also a Commander in the Order of St. Gregory. It seems quite possible that this honor, which certainly meant a lot to Fortenberry, was also arranged by Chagoury.
Fortenberry was a target of Chagoury’s money because of their shared religious objectives, not because he is a red state rube. What still remains a question, though, is what this money was meant to accomplish policy-wise, given that Fortenberry accomplishes little via legislation. For that, we may want to consider his position, since 2015, on the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. By the time Chagoury was giving Fortenberry money, he had secured a place on the approximately nine-member committee that determines the budget for the State Department, and various other international activities, including USAID, the program he and Pence attempted to influence to favor Christians in Iraq, and which administers Fortenberry’s DELTA Act.