Federal jury finds U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry guilty on all three counts

Prosecutor: ‘He lost his way’; defense attorney: ‘Flawed memory not a crime’

By: - March 24, 2022 1:55 pm

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry walks into a Los Angeles courthouse with his wife, Celeste, and his legal team. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This report was updated at 9 p.m. CDT Thursday with a verdict.
LOS ANGELES — In stunning swiftness, a California jury ruled Thursday that U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was guilty of lying to federal investigators and trying to conceal illegal campaign donations.
The jury of eight women and four men took just over two hours to find the 61-year-old Republican guilty of three felonies.
The congressman faces up to five years in prison on each of the counts. U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld set June 28 for sentencing.
Fortenberry’s youngest daughter sobbed in the front row of the courtroom as the verdicts were read after a seven-day trial.
Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, tried to console her daughter. The congressman hugged them and a second daughter as the court session ended.
Jurors left the downtown Los Angeles federal courtroom without comment.
A key piece of evidence in the case was an audio recording of a 10-minute phone call in 2018 between the congressman and the host of the 2016 fundraiser in L.A.
In that call, Dr. Elias Ayoub told Fortenberry three times that the $30,000 he received wasn’t from the attendees but from Toufic Baaklini, an associate of a billionaire living in Paris. Ayoub also told Fortenberry that the funds “probably” came from the billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury.

In closing arguments Thursday afternoon, a federal prosecutor and a defense attorney for U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry painted starkly different pictures  Thursday about why the nine-term congressman was facing three felony charges in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.

Prosecutor Susan Har told jurors that Fortenberry clearly understood and remembered what he was told in a 2018 phone call by the host of a Los Angeles fundraiser: that $30,000 in donations he received were illegal “conduit” gifts that came from a foreign national.
But instead of telling the FBI about what he learned from Dr. Elias Ayoub, Har said that the congressman chose “to put his self interest above the truth and the law.”

‘Make no mistake’

“Make no mistake, there was no mystery, there was no confusion,” she said.
Meanwhile, lead defense attorney John Littrell bore into his belief that FBI investigators “set up” Fortenberry by “feeding” him the information that the donations in 2016 were illicit. Then, Littrell said, they conducting a “flawed memory test” in which the congressman couldn’t remember “every word” of a phone call in 2018.
“Having a flawed memory is not a crime. Having a partially flawed memory is not a crime,” Littrell told jurors. “You should judge him on his character.”
As he spoke, one of the congressman’s daughters rubbed the shoulder of Fortenberry’s wife of 26 years, Celeste, who wore a look of concern and distress on her face during the two-hour-long closing statements.
The jury began deliberating at 3:45 p.m. PDT. It was not clear how long they might deliberate.
Fortenberry was charged with lying to agents in two interviews in 2019. He was also charged with attempting to conceal the L.A. donations by not amending his federal campaign reports. Fortenberry faces up to five years in prison on each felony count.

Fighting for his political future

The congressman, who has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, is fighting for his reputation and for his political future.
He faces a tough, GOP primary challenge from State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman. Both Republican leaders calculated that the GOP was in danger of losing its safe 1st District seat due to Fortenberry’s legal troubles.
During the seven-day trial, jurors heard from Dr. Ayoub, the host of a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. He testified that he was given a paper sack full of $30,000 to be donated, through his friends and family, to Fortenberry’s re-election campaign.
The carrier of the cash, Toufic Baaklini, told jurors that he got the money from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris.
Donations from foreigners to U.S. political campaigns are illegal, as are donations funneled through conduits or “straw men.”

‘Defendant understood’

Four times, jurors heard an audio recording of a June 4, 2018 phone call between Ayoub and Fortenberry. In that call, the congressman was told at least three times that the $30,000 wasn’t from a group of Lebanese-Americans, but from Baaklini, and that the funds “probably” originated with Chagoury.
All of those involved in the fundraiser were associated with In Defense of Christians, a group that fights to protect religious minorities in the Middle East and had enlisted Fortenberry to speak at several of its events.
Har used slides to dissect the prosecution’s case, detailing the evidence that she said proved that “the defendant understood, the defendant remembered, the defendant lied.”
“He understood exactly what Dr. Ayoub was telling him,” she said.

Common sense

Har asked jurors to use their “common sense” and “life experiences” to discount the defense contention that Fortenberry might not have heard all the words in the phone call from Ayoub because of a bad cell connection at his Lincoln home. When that happens, she said, doesn’t someone ask “can you repeat that?” or “I didn’t quite hear you.”
Meanwhile, Fortenberry’s defense focused on their claims that he didn’t hear, didn’t comprehend, or was distracted during the 2018 phone call. That’s why, his attorneys maintain, he didn’t recall the warnings when quizzed by FBI agents at his home in March of 2019 and in Washington, D.C., in July of 2019.
Littrell, in his closing arguments, said federal prosecutors created a case against Fortenberry, describing how someone can fire an arrow against a barn and then draw a target around it. He called it the “sharp shooter fallacy.”

Bull’s eye

“They’ve created the impression that they hit right on the bull’s eye,” Littrell said. “But they strung together a lot of facts … they’ve created a narrative, a misleading narrative.”
He also told jurors that there’s no proof that Fortenberry heard all the words spoken in the 2018 phone call from Dr. Ayoub, asking them to “consider it a reasonable possibility” that he didn’t. He displayed a slide for jurors that showed that if just three words in that phone call were deleted, “it completely distorts the meaning.”
Memory, the defense attorney added, “does not work like a tape recorder.”
“He should not be judged on not remembering every word in that call,” Littrell said.
Lead prosecutor Mack Jenkins, in his rebuttal of Littrell’s closing argument, ask jurors to ignore “the distractions” that he presented.
 “They’re asking you not to look at the evidence, but to look away from the evidence,” Jenkins said.
“This isn’t a case about the defendant’s reputation or integrity,” he said. “It’s about how he lost his way and why.”

He was in ‘a hole’

Jenkins maintained that Fortenberry was aware that he was in “a hole,” but instead of telling the FBI the truth “he doubled down” to save his political career.
A year ago, deferred prosecution agreements were announced for Chagoury, Baaklini and another
Chagoury associate. They agreed to pay fines ranging from $1.8 million to $90,000, and to cooperate in the investigation. Dr. Ayoub also reached a deal to avoid prosecution if he testified truthfully.
In October, indictments against Fortenberry were announced, some weeks after it was revealed that he was raising money for legal expenses.
Celeste Fortenberry, during her testimony Thursday, provided several explanations Thursday about why her husband may not have heard or understand warnings in a June 2018 cell phone call — warnings repeated at least three times — that his re-election campaign had received illegal contributions during a fundraiser two years earlier.
She testified that she and her husband were exhausted on the day of the June 4, 2018 call after returning from a long flight home from Finland. She choked up briefly as she said they were stressed out because one of their daughters was facing a serious surgery in a couple of days.

‘On autopilot’

Celeste said the congressman “loathed” making fund-raising calls, so he often did other chores — like cooking, cleaning, yard work or walking the dog — to “help him through it” while he was making such calls “on autopilot.”
And, the wife said, the cell phone reception at their Lincoln home was “spotty” — perhaps only one or two “bars” of service in the house — and was so bad that her husband never took calls in his cluttered, home office in the basement.
“We live in Nebraska,” the wife told jurors. “The state has kind of lousy cell phone service.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.