Fortenberry sentenced to probation, not prison, for lying to federal investigators

Judge said Fortenberry was a man of integrity, despite turning a ‘blind eye’ to warning that donations were illegal

By: - June 28, 2022 11:43 am
fortenberry

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and his wife, Celeste, arrive at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles during his trial in March. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry will not go to prison for lying and misleading federal investigators, a California federal judge announced Tuesday.

And he’ll likely keep his federal pension benefits.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld sentenced the 61-year-old Republican to two years’ probation, a $25,000 fine and 320 hours of community service.

Blumenfeld said he didn’t agree with prosecutors — who had suggested a six-month prison term — that spending time behind bars was necessary to provide a significant deterrent to future crimes involving politicians lying to investigators. 

64 letters sought leniency

The judge said he read and took into consideration the 64 letters submitted to the court asking for leniency, letters that came from family, friends, Bishop James Conley of the Lincoln Catholic Diocese and Lt. Gov. Mike Foley.

Blumenfeld also noted that three others indicted in “Operation Titan’s Grip,” a conspiracy to funnel foreign money to American politicians, did not get prison time.

Fortenberry betrayed no emotion when the sentence was finally announced and declined to address the court. 

Plans to appeal

Afterward, he issued a statement saying he planned to appeal his conviction and how “the federal false statements statute can be weaponized by FBI and DOJ officials in a way Congress could not have contemplated.”

“It can be used to destroy the lives of even the most honorable people,” he said in the statement.

“This is a case that never should have been brought; and certainly not in California,” his statement said.

“As the Judge explained today, I knew nothing about the conspiracy to illegally funnel money to my campaign. I was kept in the dark about it, just like other candidates who received similar illegal campaign contributions. I trusted the FBI agents and prosecutors from the Department of Justice. They took advantage of that trust,” he said.

During Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, the judge said the former congressman turned a “blind eye and deaf ear” when the organizer of a Los Angeles campaign fundraiser in 2016 gave him a warning in a phone call two years later. In that call, Dr. Elias Ayoub said that the $30,000 Fortenberry had received didn’t come from a group of Lebanese-Americans living in L.A., but was funneled to them from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris.

It is illegal for foreigners to donate to U.S. political campaigns, either directly or, as in this case, through conduits. And in two interviews with the FBI in 2019, Fortenberry had no recollection that the $30,000 came from Chagoury.

Found guilty in March

In March, after a seven-day trial, a jury found Fortenberry guilty of two counts of lying to the FBI and one count of trying to mislead investigators by failing to amend his federal campaign contribution report.

A tape recording of the 2018 call with Ayoub in which he told Fortenberry that the $30,000 in contributions “probably” came from Chagoury was cited by prosecutors as key in winning a guilty verdict.

Fortenberry’s defense was that he either didn’t clearly hear what Ayoub said due to poor cell phone reception at his east Lincoln home, was distracted or was fatigued after a long trip.

The California jury, sitting in a white marble courthouse in central L.A., didn’t buy it, taking only two hours to find the congressman guilty of all three, felony charges. 

Fortenberry had represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005 and faced up to five years in prison on each of the three counts.

Prison sentence sought

Prosecutors, in pre-sentence briefs, argued for six months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release, a $30,000 fine and 150 hours of community service. The federal probation office had recommend a three-month prison term, as well as a $9,500 fine. 

Lead prosecutor Mack Jenkins, an assistant U.S. attorney based in L.A., argued Tuesday that prison is the best deterrent to white-color crime. He had asked for an enhancement in the sentence because Fortenberry abused his position as an elected official, an enhancement rejected by the judge. 

“He made choice after choice after choice to not live up to his oath (of office),” Jenkins said. He asked the judge to reconsider his proposed sentence to provide a greater deterrent to people of “great power.” 

Fortenberry’s legal team had asked for a sentence of probation, saying that sending the congressman to prison would present a severe financial hardship for his family, which includes a daughter born with a heart defect and two daughters in college.

On Tuesday, lead defense lawyer John Littrell asked the judge to impose only one year of probation. He argued that the $25,000 fine was too large for Fortenberry, who was not a man of great financial means.

But Littrell agreed with the lack of prison time.

Bitterest consequence

“Sentencing is not just about the offense, it’s about the person,” Liltterll said, quoting Foley’s letter that Fortenberry was “a good and honest man.”

“His resignation (from Congress) is the bitterest consequence of this case,” Littrell added.

The judge noted that two other politicians convicted in the same California judicial district had received prison terms for impeding a federal investigation, but he said that Fortenberry’s offenses were not as serious by comparison.

Other cases got prison

One of the other political corruption cases involved a Los Angeles City Council member, Mitch Englander. He was convicted in a “pay to play” scheme in which he received a total of $25,000 in payments handed over in casino bathrooms, as well as other gifts. Englander got 14 months in prison.

The other case involved a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, Byron Dredd, who was sentenced to one year in prison for making false statements to federal investigators probing the beating of a handcuffed man by a group of deputies.

Fortenberry’s offenses, while serious, did not compare to those, Blumenfeld said, adding that witnesses at his trial universally testified that he was an honorable man.

‘Best of luck’

“I do wish you the best of luck, Mr. Fortenberry,” the judge said at the conclusion of the one-hour hearing.

In his post-sentencing statement, Fortenberry thanked the judge for taking the time to “learn about who I am and what I have done in my life.”

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is serve my country and try to help people. I am grateful for over 20 years of public service, and I’m proud of my record of accomplishments for Nebraska and for America,” the former congressman said.

Federal law allows a member of Congress to lose federal pension benefits if the person is convicted of a felony, and during Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Fortenberry’s attorneys said he was in danger of losing those benefits.

But Demian Brady of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation said Tuesday that while Fortenberry’s offenses would qualify him to lose his pension benefits, no member of Congress, to date, has lost them due to a felony conviction.

Brady estimated that Fortenberry would be eligible for about $46,000 a year in pension benefits when he becomes eligible later this year, after turning 62.

By law, no member of Congress can receive a pension of more than 80% of the member’s regular salary, which was $174,000 this year.

A 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service said the average retirement annuity under one federal retirement plan was $75,528 and $41,208 under another.

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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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