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)
OMAHA — Former 1st District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., has formally appealed his three felony convictions.
Fortenberry filed notice in late June that he intended to appeal. He was convicted in March of lying to or misleading FBI agents investigating foreign funds that were illegally donated to Fortenberry’s campaign. Federal law prohibits the use of foreign funds in congressional races.
Friday’s 61-page filing with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals repeats many of Fortenberry’s legal arguments from his trial, before a federal District Court jury in California found him guilty.
His appeal argues that he should not have been tried in central California, but in Nebraska or Washington, D.C., where federal agents interviewed him regarding a California fundraiser.
“Venue for a criminal prosecution is proper only in the State and district in which the defendant committed the acts that constitute the alleged crime,” his lawyers wrote.
It also argues U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld should have given the jurors a narrower definition of the crime of misleading agents, which Fortenberry’s lawyers had sought.
They said there is no way to know whether jurors convicted the congressman based on what Fortenberry’s team argued is a misinterpretation of the scope of the law.
Blumenfeld ruled against both arguments — venue and materiality — at the District Court level. The jury unanimously found that Fortenberry’s actions were both material and criminal.
The Justice Department investigated Fortenberry as part of a broader push to explore campaign donations from a foreign national, Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury.
Prosecutors said a group of Lebanese-Americans gave Fortenberry $30,000 in campaign donations during a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. The money came from Chagoury, who lives in Paris.
Fortenberry had spoken to Chagoury’s organization, In Defense of Christians. It works to condemn persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Investigators recorded a call with Fortenberry and an informant who told Fortenberry at least three times that some of the money raised in 2016 was probably from Chagoury, which made it illegal.
Fortenberry denied knowledge of illegal contributions during two interviews with the FBI after the call. His lawyers argued that he either had bad cell service, that the congressman spaced out during the call or that he didn’t recall specifics about the call.
Fortenberry was sentenced to two years’ probation, a $25,000 fine and 320 hours of community service. The sentence is on hold until his appeal is resolved.
Fortenberry resigned his seat in Congress at the end of March. Then-State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk won a special election in June to serve out the remainder of Fortenberry’s term.
Flood is running against Democratic State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln this fall for a full two-year term.
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