Prosecutors dispute Fortenberry’s appeal claims, including that he was wrongly tried in L.A.
Former Nebraska congressman maintains his misstatements were not ‘material’ to probe into illegal contributions
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 in California pushed back Friday on appeals from former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry that he was wrongly convicted of lying to federal agents and that he was wrongly tried in Los Angeles, instead of Nebraska.
In a 73-page filing, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in L.A. argued that at least three circuit court decisions have concluded the proper venue for a trial can be either the district where an offense was committed or where an offense was “directed,” or in this case, California.
Prosecutors also maintained that the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, rightly rejected a request by Fortenberry’s defense attorneys to include “incorrect” and “unnecessary” additional instructions to jurors about the “materiality” of statements the congressman gave to FBI investigators.
Fortenberry, who had represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, was found guilty in March of three felonies involving lying to federal investigators and concealing illegal campaign donations.
The charges stemmed from a 2016 fundraiser in an L.A. suburb in which Fortenberry raised $30,000 from a handful of Lebanese-Americans.
Probe into foreign contributions
It was later discovered that the funds came from one person, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire based in Paris, Gilbert Chagoury. It is illegal for U.S. politicians to accept donations from a foreigner or contributions funneled through conduits or “straw” men.
FBI agents, based in Los Angeles, had launched a probe in 2015 into Chagoury and campaign contributions he provided to several U.S. politicians, including former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.
In 2021, Chagoury paid $1.8 million to resolve charges that he had provided $180,000 in contributions to four politicians. Terry said he gave away the $5,200 donation he received as soon as he learned the FBI was investigating.
During Fortenberry’s trial, prosecutors played a tape recording of the then-Republican congressman speaking in June 2018 with the organizer of the L.A. fundraiser.
During the call, the organizer, Dr. Elias Ayoub, said at least three times that the $30,000 was illegal — that it had been delivered in a paper bag from an associate of Chagoury and probably originated with the billionaire.
Yet, when Fortenberry was questioned by FBI agents from California at his Lincoln home in March 2019, he denied knowledge of any illegal contributions and said he was unsure who Ayoub was.
Fortenberry denied knowledge
Fortenberry also denied any knowledge of the donations being unlawful during a follow-up interrogation by FBI agents in Washington, D.C., later in 2019.
A few weeks after this meeting with the FBI, Fortenberry gave away the $30,000 he had received to charity — a delayed disgorgement of the money that one of his attorneys said was suggested by the feds.
Fortenberry, who resigned his seat shortly after being found guilty, has maintained that he was a victim of overzealous prosecution and that he either misheard, forgot or a had a bad cell phone connection when he was told that the contributions were illegal.
The recording, played at least three times for the jury in California, was a powerful bit of evidence. Each time it was played, jurors could be seen scribbling notes to themselves.
In October, Fortenberry’s defense attorneys filed a 61-page appeal of his conviction with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Trial venue challenged
Among their arguments were that the trial should not have been held in California, but in Nebraska or in Washington, D.C. where “the defendant committed the acts that constitute the alleged crime.”
Defense lawyers also maintained that Fortenberry’s statements to FBI agents were not “material” to their investigation, and thus he should have not been tried or convicted.
Fortenberry, now 62, still lives in Lincoln. The Omaha World-Herald reported that he took a private sector job in June paying $144,000 a year.
He was sentenced to two years’ probation, a $25,000 fine and 320 hours of community service — a sentence that is on hold until his appeal is resolved.
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