Don't Talk to the Feds Without a Lawyer. Ever.
The Justice Department announced a grand jury indictment yesterday against Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., on charges of lying to federal investigators and concealing the source of illegal campaign contributions.
Ho-hum. Another corrupt politician getting caught. On to the next one. Except that the details of Fortenberry's case provide lessons for the rest of us. It shouldn't be such an obvious lesson, but here we are (and this is why we're sharing this post in Legally Weird instead of Courtside).
Wait, the Nigerian Prince Is Real?
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, Fortenberry was part of a scheme to accept campaign donations from a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire.
U.S. law forbids foreign nationals from donating to federal campaigns. To skirt the law, other parties arranged for those donations to be routed through American donors at a 2016 fundraiser, a plan that Fortenberry allegedly knew about. Concealing the source of campaign donations is also against the law.
In short: Fortenberry found the one Nigerian prince who really did want to part with some of his fortune! (As always, please don't fall for this scam, folks.)
The donor, Gilbert Chagoury, and his middleman, Toufic Joseph Baaklini, began cooperating with DOJ. The co-host of the Fortenberry fundraiser in question also began cooperating. That unnamed person said they informed Fortenberry of the likely illegal nature of the donations when the congressman wanted to plan another fundraiser in 2018.
Despite knowing the illegal nature of the donations, the feds allege, Fortenberry did not amend any campaign finance filings. He then allegedly lied to FBI agents during multiple interviews.
'I Was Just Trying To Help' Doesn't Help
In a defiant YouTube video, Fortenberry and his wife Celeste said that he was unaware of the scheme and that he did not lie to investigators when he spoke to them in 2019. However, he also said something else interesting:
"I had a knock on my door on a weekend ... they were FBI agents from California. I let them in my house, I answered their questions ... We're shocked. We're stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. I thought we were trying to help."
This shouldn't need to be repeated so frequently, but even the DOJ press release on this case notes it: Everyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.
However, the more you talk to law enforcement, the more harm you are doing to your case. And this is especially true when you invite investigators into your home when they don't have a warrant and you do not have a lawyer present.
Whether you are a congressman or just a regular person, and the FBI, local police, or any other law enforcement officers show up at your door and "just want to ask a few questions," there is exactly one thing you should say: "I'd like to speak to my lawyer first."
To spell it out more, when law enforcement questions you, anything you say can and will be used against you later. Even if you think you are "just trying to help," the government may interpret a misstatement or a misremembering of facts as a lie.
Protect yourself and ask for a lawyer, who will either want to be present for questioning or advise you to not answer any questions.
- Find a Criminal Defense Lawyer Near You (FindLaw's Lawyer Directory)
- What Are the Consequences of Lying to the FBI? (FindLaw's Criminal Defense Blog)
- What Are the Penalties for Lying to a Cop? (FindLaw's Criminal Defense Blog)
- Can Congress Hold You in Contempt? (FindLaw's Legally Weird)
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.