The federal investigation into Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who was charged last month on accusations of lying to federal investigators and hiding evidence about illicit campaign contributions, seems to have led to the arrest of another Republican congressman.
Last Monday, the Department of Justice argued that a protective order in the Fortenberry case was “essential” to preserve “evidence related to sensitive and ongoing investigations, including those related to public officials.”
One public individual in issue, listed only as “Candidate C” in court records, is Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is now the apparent focus of a DOJ probe – and may have been the victim of a sting operation.
Issa resigned from Congress in 2018 after serving nine years from a Southern California district, but subsequently switched to an adjacent San Diego County area and was barely elected in 2020. Issa, a former CEO of an aftermarket vehicle accessories firm named Directed Electronics, has a net worth of $250 million and is one of the House’s wealthiest members.
On September 10, 2014, Issa sat at the same table with Gilbert Chagoury, a mystery man described in the allegations against Fortenberry as a “foreign millionaire,” at a Washington event held by the nonprofit In Defense of Christianity (IDC).
Two weeks later, on the same day, Dr. Elias Ayoub and his wife Mireille, a wealthy Los Angeles couple who had also attended the IDC dinner, donated a total of $60,000 to Issa’s campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
According to records submitted with the Justice Department, the $30,000 contributed to Issa’s victory fund came from Chagoury, a Nigerian national who is not permitted to donate to federal candidates under federal law.
According to DPAs for Chagoury and a Lebanese national called Joseph Arsan, Chagoury met with Elias Ayoub — referred as in the papers as “Individual H” — in September 2014 at a “special interest conference” in Washington.
The IDC Summit, held from September 9 to 11, was definitely such event. It was held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, which has long functioned as a meeting place for Washington’s conservative elite and formerly hosted the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) events.
The IDC dinner was hosted by a guy called Toufic Baaklini, who served as a go-between for Chagoury’s straw gifts to political candidates. At the same occasion, Ayoub and his wife were both attendees and speakers.
According to the DPAs, Chagoury proposed that Ayoub organize a political fundraiser for “Candidate C,” who is now known as Issa, and requested him to “contribute $30,000” to Issa’s Victory Fund, which Chagoury said he would repay Ayoub for.
Photos from the time show Chagoury and Issa sitting next to one other at the gala dinner at the IDC summit, but they are no longer accessible on the internet.
On September 28, 2014, Ayoub and his wife donated a $30,000 contribution to Issa’s Victory Fund, making the Ayoub family’s LLC the tenth highest employer to give to that committee during the 2014 election cycle.
According to the Justice Department, on Oct. 21, Joseph Arsan sent $30,000 to Ayoub at Chagoury’s instruction, saying on the wire form that the monies were for a “wedding gift.” That was the amount made to compensate the Ayoubs for their contribution to Issa’s campaign.
On the same day as the documented straw donations, the Ayoubs made an additional $30,000 in federal contributions: $2,600 each to Issa for Congress, $7,400 each to the NRCC, and $5,000 each to Issa’s PAC, Invest in a Strong and Secure America.
It is unknown if such payments originated from the Ayoubs or from someone else, but they are not mentioned in the DOJ agreements that have been examined.
Ayoub was also a co-host and a straw contributor at Fortenberry’s 2016 fundraiser, which resulted in the Nebraska congressman’s arrest last month.
According to federal prosecutors, Ayoub began cooperating with authorities in September 2016 and informed FBI and IRS agents about the illegal contributions to Fortenberry in 2016, as well as a $45,000 contribution to 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a $30,000 contribution to Issa’s campaign in 2014.
In the autumn of 2012, Ayoub “recruited” another Los Angeles resident, Ramez Toubassy (identified as Individual I in DOJ filings), to make a $50,000 payment to the Romney campaign.
Toubassy and Ayoub also contributed $30,800 to the Republican National Committee and state Republican groups in Idaho, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma at the same period.
Toubassy contributed $3,550 to each organization, while Ayoub contributed $2,925. Toubassy was the “president of Brand Sense Partners, a Century City brand-consulting business with clients like Britney Spears and MGM” at the time. So yet, he has not been identified or prosecuted in connection with the plan.
Notably, the Ayoubs had never given to any of Issa’s campaign committees before, and they did not do so again until three and a half years after they allegedly started working with federal officials.
Dr. Ayoub made two further gifts to Issa on March 28, 2020, soon after he came second in the top-two nonpartisan primary in California’s 50th congressional district: $2,000 to his victory fund and $2,000 to Darrell Issa for Congress. (In the end, Issa won the general election in November.)
The timing of such payments, around a year before the DOJ announced “Non and Deferred Prosecution Agreements” with Chagoury and Arsan, is noteworthy. The Ayoubs may have been utilized as part of the DOJ probe against Issa. The following are included in Fortenberry’s indictment:
The Federal Investigation also sought to uncover whether and when any politicians were aware they had received illegal foreign national or conduit contributions and whether any person sought to impermissibly influence the recipient politician in exchange for the contributions.
“No, I don’t have the same issues [as Fortenberry],” Issa told Haley Fuchs and Olivia Beavers in late October. “I made no statements to any FBI — or anything else.”