Fortenberry finds out Tuesday if he’ll be sentenced to prison or probation

If he serves time behind bars, he’d be the only one to do so in the federal probe

By: - June 27, 2022 9:55 pm
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry talks reporters after his trial.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, with his wife, Celeste, at his side, talks to reporters just after a federal jury found him guilty. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Will Jeff Fortenberry be sentenced to prison for lying and misleading federal investigators, or will a California judge be lenient, as 64 letter-writers have urged?

The former congressman will find out Tuesday morning when he returns to the same Los Angeles federal courtroom where a jury found him guilty in March of three felonies.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, who presided over the seven-day trial, will announce a verdict during a hearing that begins at 10 a.m. CDT.

Fortenberry, a 61-year-old Republican who had represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, faces up to five years in prison on each of the three counts — lying to the FBI during two interviews and failing to correct his federal campaign spending report.

Abuse of trust

Prosecutors, in pre-sentence briefs, argue for six months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release, a $30,000 fine and 150 hours of community service. 

A prison term is necessary, they said, to act as a deterrent for other elected officials for “abusing their position of trust and violating the law by obstructing justice.”

“For his pattern of choosing hubris over honesty and for the trampled public trust that defendant leaves in his wake, a meaningful term of imprisonment is appropriate and necessary,” wrote the lead prosecutor, Mack Jenkins, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Two other politicians convicted in the same California judicial district have received prison terms, prosecutors added.

Fortenberry’s legal team asked for a sentence of probation, saying that there was no reason to send the former congressman to prison and that doing so would present a severe financial hardship for his family, which includes a daughter born with a heart defect and two daughters in college.

He has no prior criminal record, is too old to serve time in prison and has paid a hefty price in diminished public standing, argued defense lawyers.

64 letters seek leniency

Sixty-four letters were submitted to U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld pleading for leniency and for no prison time. The letter writers included Bishop James Conley of the Lincoln Catholic Diocese; Lt. Gov. Mike Foley; Scott Hahn, a well-known Catholic author; and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

Fortenberry’s five daughters, his wife, Celeste, and his mother and stepfather also submitted letters, calling him the “rock” of the family whose absence would compound already severe punishment via the loss of his reputation and many friends.

“I can honestly say that the burden that would be placed upon his beloved wife Celeste and their five daughters if he was sentenced to prison for any length of time, would be nearly unbearable to shoulder,” Bishop Conley wrote. 

“The painful collateral consequences of this conviction have already achieved any deterrence that this prosecution could achieve,” Fortenberry’s attorneys wrote. “He will continue to do good for others. In these circumstances, imprisonment would be punishment ‘greater than necessary.’ ” 

Only person facing prison

The congressman, who resigned shortly after being found guilty, was snared in a federal investigation into illegal, foreign campaign contributions funneled through conduits to a handful of U.S. politicians, including Mitt Romney and then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.

If sent to prison, Fortenberry would be the first person involved in “Operation Titan’s Grip” to serve behind bars.

The “Titan” who was the subject of the investigation, Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire, paid a $1.8 million fine and agreed to cooperate with authorities for the $180,000 he donated to American politicians.

He received no prison time, and neither did a Washington, D.C.-based associate, Toufic Baaklini, who delivered $30,000 in a brown paper bag to a Los Angeles doctor, Elias Ayoub. Ayoub arranged for families and friends to contribute the money to Fortenberry at an L.A. fundraiser in 2016. Ayoub also didn’t get prison time, in exchange for his cooperation, which included testifying for the prosecution, along with Baaklini, at Fortenberry’s trial. 

In Defense of Christians

Baaklini headed a group called “In Defense of Christians.” He, Chagoury, Ayoub and Fortenberry shared an interest in “the cause,” the protection of Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

In 2018, Ayoub, who was by then working with the FBI, called Fortenberry to tell him the $30,000 “probably” came from Chagoury.

But when two FBI agents conducted a surprise interview with Fortenberry in March 2019, the congressman didn’t reveal or recall the Chagoury connection. His defense lawyers blamed the lack of recollection on a poor cell phone connection, fatigue from a long trip or distraction during a time of monumental flooding in Nebraska. At the time, Fortenberry was asking for a second fundraiser in L.A.

During a second interview with the feds later in 2019, Fortenberry also didn’t say the money came from Chagoury, and he remarked that he would have been “horrified” if that was the case.

Pension in jeopardy

Later that year, the congressman gave away the $30,000 to charities— something Rep. Terry and others implicated in Operation Titan’s Grip had done almost immediately after being contacted by investigators.

Fortenberry, who took a job shortly after his conviction, might lose his federal pension because of his conviction. He has promised to appeal once the sentencing is announced.

The U.S. Probation Office in California, in its pre-sentence report, recommended three months in prison, one year of supervised release and a fine of $9,500, noting the damage to the “public trust” and saying that Fortenberry hadn’t clearly taken responsibility for his crime.

Prosecutors maintain that instead of coming clean during the second interview, which was requested by Fortenberry, he made new lies, which “disrupted” and “significantly delayed” the federal investigation. They asked the judge to give little regard to the dozens of letters seeking leniency.

“Given defendant’s repeated conduct over a period of time, lack of remorse, and the strong particularized need for general and specific deterrence here, a meaningful custodial sentence is necessary,” prosecutors told the judge.

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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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