It's not every day when a sitting member of Congress gets criminally charged, so when an elected lawmaker announces to the public that he's expecting to face a felony charge, it's bound to get some attention.
The Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska reported this morning:
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry expects the federal government to charge him with lying to the FBI during its investigation of campaign contributions funneled to him from a Nigerian billionaire. The nine-term Republican from Lincoln said he is being wrongly accused.
The report coincides with the release of this YouTube video, which the Nebraska Republican posted late yesterday, in which Fortenberry said: "We will fight these charges. I did not lie to [FBI investigators]."
The title of the congressman's video read, "I wanted you to hear from me first."
Though Fortenberry's controversy hasn't generated much in the way of national news, the fact that he's expecting an indictment doesn't come as a complete surprise. Roll Call reported a few weeks ago that the GOP lawmaker opened a legal expense fund in August to help pay for his legal expenses.
The online fundraising page for Fortenberry's legal expense fund said he was facing the Deep State's bottomless pockets," and went so far as to claim that President Joe Biden's FBI "is using its unlimited power to prosecute me on a bogus charge."
In reality, the controversy pre-dates Biden's election.
As the Lincoln Journal Star's report explained, it was during the Trump administration that the FBI began investigating illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. His donations were reportedly funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016, and went to several politicians, including Fortenberry.
Members of Congress cannot, of course, accept foreign funds for their campaigns, but in this case, that's not the principal problem: The Nebraskan and his team have said they didn't realize the $30,200 in contributions he received at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016 came from a Nigerian billionaire. The congressman later donated the money to local charities.
Rather, based on Fortenberry's own remarks, it appears the Justice Department believes the Republican misled the FBI in 2019 as part of the investigation.
As for why a foreigner would target a relatively low-profile Nebraska congressman with illegal money, the Justice Department believes Chagoury was allegedly eyeing U.S. politicians "from less-populous states" because the money would be "more noticeable" and provide greater access.
To be sure, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the controversy. We don't have a full list of politicians the foreign donor set out to support. We don't know the identities of possible straw donors. We don't even know what Fortenberry may have lied about or why.
Nevertheless, it appears we may soon see the first charge against a sitting member of Congress since then-Republican Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter were charged a few years ago.
Update: A few hours after this post was published, Fortenberry was, in fact, charged.