Prosecutors urge judge to reject appeal by former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry

U.S. attorneys maintain that defense is trying to ‘recycle’ previous, failed arguments

By: - May 26, 2022 4:00 am
Fortenberry guilty

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, flanked by his wife and other family members, speaks to reporters after the guilty verdicts. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Federal prosecutors urged a judge on Wednesday to reject the latest appeal by former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., saying that it “largely raises previously rejected” arguments and raises claims that are improper.

The 28-page motion from prosecutors comes as a sentencing date nears for Fortenberry, who was convicted by a jury in March of three counts of lying or misleading federal investigators.

A month ago, Fortenberry’s lawyers asked that the congressman’s convictions following a seven-day trial be thrown out, arguing that his false statements were not “material” to the overall federal investigation into illegal “conduit” political contributions from a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire named Gilbert Chagoury.

Foreigners cannot legally donate to American political campaigns, either directly or through conduits, and a Los Angeles jury found that Fortenberry had made five false statements to FBI agents and prosecutors about $30,000 in contributions he had received in 2016 through associates of Chagoury.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California, in their response brief, said two FBI agents testified “extensively” during the trial about how Fortenberry’s false statements impacted their investigation.

They argued that the statements forced investigators “to explore the possible motives for defendant’s lies, including whether he was concealing prior knowledge of the illegal campaign contributions, whether there was a corrupt relationship or conspiracy involving defendant for past or future contributions …”

Judge rejected jury instruction

During the trial, the agents also said they needed to discover whether Fortenberry took any official action in exchange for the donations, which were provided during a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.

Prosecutors on Wednesday maintained that defense attorneys were seeking to “recycle” legal claims that were rejected during the trial. They pointed out that the trial judge, Stanley Blumenfeld, had “properly” denied a defense request that the jury be instructed that a “false statement is not material merely because it causes the government to investigate the veracity (truth or falsehood) of the statement itself.” 

The evidence presented to jurors, the U.S. attorney’s brief maintained, was more than enough to sustain the convictions. The brief contended it was improper for defense attorneys to use an appeal over the sufficiency of the evidence to “re-argue” the definition of materiality.

Rep. Terry also got money

The federal investigation ultimately found that Chagoury had provided $180,000 in donations to four U.S. politicians, including Mitt Romney and then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.

Chagoury, through Baaklini, also provided a $50,000 loan to former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Terry has said he gave away his donations from Chagoury soon after being contacted by the FBI. Fortenberry took several months to disgorge the $30,000 he had been given. 

During the trial, an associate of Chagoury’s, Toufic Baaklini, who then headed a group called “In Defense of Christians,” admitted he had lied to Fortenberry after the 2016 fundraiser when the congressman had asked if there was anything wrong with the donations.

 Fortenberry eventually gave away the $30,000 to charities, but only after giving a second interview to FBI agents in 2019. 

Chagoury paid fine

Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine in a plea deal with prosecutors. Baaklini paid a $90,000 fine, and a doctor who served as host of the L.A. fundraiser, Elias Ayoub, agreed to cooperate with authorities.

 Another associate of the billionaire, Joseph Arsan, also of Paris, agreed to pay a $1.7 million fine to settle his role in the political contributions, as well as alleged tax violations.

Fortenberry, who was convicted of three felonies, faces up to five years in prison on each of the counts. He would be the only person caught up in the investigation, called “Operation Titan’s Grip,” who would serve time in behind bars if he is sentenced to prison. 

Fortenberry resigned his post two days after the guilty verdicts and dropped out of his re-election campaign.

A special election has been set for June 28 to fill the vacancy. That is the same day that Fortenberry is scheduled to be sentenced in Los Angeles.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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