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Key player in Fortenberry indictment resigns as president of Christian group

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A key figure in the indictment of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry for allegedly lying to federal investigators has resigned his position with a Washington, D.C.-based Christian group.

Toufic Baaklini, who resigned on Sunday, had served as president and a board member for several years for In Defense of Christians, an organization that fights persecution of Christians in the Middle East. 

Jeff Fortenberry mug (copy) (copy)

Jeff Fortenberry

Baaklini told federal investigators that in January 2016, he was given $30,000 by Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire now living in Paris, for distribution as political contributions to Fortenberry. Baaklini said he gave the money to a California man who was hosting a fundraiser for Fortenberry at a Los Angeles restaurant. A group of people — with five of the donors having the last name Ayoub — were recruited to eventually donate the money.

It is illegal for foreigners to contribute to American political campaigns, including through third parties, a practice known as "conduit" contributions.

Fortenberry ran into Baaklini in Washington sometime after the fundraiser, according to federal court documents, and asked him something to the effect of: “Do you think anything was wrong with the fundraiser?”

Baaklini replied by falsely saying “no” and then asked why. Fortenberry reportedly responded “because it all came from the same family.”

Fortenberry has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney has said he was "misled" by federal investigators and didn't recall all of the details of a 2018 phone call in which federal prosecutors said he was told the donations were illegal. After two interviews with FBI investigators in 2019, Fortenberry gave the $30,000 to two charities.

Several phone calls and messages to Baaklini over the past week by the World-Herald have gone unanswered.

Chagoury and Baaklini admitted making illegal campaign contributions to Fortenberry and three other politicians, including former U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha and the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. Chagoury and Baaklini agreed to cooperate with the federal investigation and paid fines of $1.8 million and $90,000, respectively.

Baaklini, who was born in Lebanon, had given campaign donations to more than a dozen Republican candidates for office in recent years, according to federal campaign reports.

In Defense of Christians, in a press release on Sunday, thanked Baaklini for his service, adding that any campaign contributions made by, or through, Baaklini were in his "personal capacity." 

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