Representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was found guilty on Thursday of lying to federal investigators about a $30,000 illegal payment to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 Los Angeles event. We know, it’s a massive shock considering how honest all politicians are.
After a two-hour deliberation, a federal jury in Los Angeles found the nine-term Republican guilty of hiding facts and two counts of making false statements to authorities. After denying to the FBI that he knew he had received unlawful payments from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian millionaire of Lebanese heritage, Fortenberry was indicted.
As the decision was delivered, Fortenberry remained emotionless, while his youngest daughter sobbed violently in front of the gallery as her mother sought to calm her. Following the jury’s departure from the courtroom, Fortenberry hugged his wife and two of his five kids who were there.
Rep. Fortenberry of Nebraska has been charged with lying to investigators about unlawful donations.
Fortenberry said outside the courthouse that the process had been unjust and that he would file an appeal immediately. He refused to say if he would postpone his reelection campaign, saying he needed to spend time with his family.
“I’m getting so many beautiful messages from people literally all around the world, who’ve been praying for us and pulling for us,” he added.
The judge set the date for the sentence on June 28. Each offense includes the possibility of a five-year jail term as well as penalties. We highly doubt he will actually see that amount of time though. One thing is for sure Fortenberry will definitely be going to a camp.
Since Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of bribery and other criminal counts in 2002, this was the first trial of a sitting congressman.
Fortenberry, 61, did not testify, but his attorneys claimed at trial that he was unaware of the gift and that agents instructed an informant to give him the information over the course of a 10-minute phone call to set him up.
Federal prosecutor loving it
According to Assistant United States Attorney Mack Jenkins, the case had enough of recorded evidence, and the jury’s quick decision justified the prosecution’s efforts.
“Our view is that it was a simple story,” Jenkins added. “A politician who is caught up in the money and power cycle. And, as I already stated, he became disoriented.”
The trial may effectively destroy the political career of a congressman who is known in Nebraska as a dependable conservative who has coasted to comfortable victories. Even though felons are permitted to run for and serve in Congress, the great majority of them opt to quit rather than risk being expelled.
Prosecutors revealed the accusations against Fortenberry, and his indictment had already upset Nebraska Republicans who had backed him for years in the conservative district. Many notable Republicans have nominated State Senator Mike Flood, a conservative state legislator, and former Nebraska Legislature speaker, for the congressional seat.
Prosecutors claimed that during an interview at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and a follow-up meeting four months later in Washington about the gift received at a Los Angeles event, Fortenberry lied about what he knew about the illegal transaction.
Fortenberry’s lawyer and closing arguments
Fortenberry’s flaws, according to defense counsel, were freely interacting with agents and prosecutors to assist their investigation and having a defective memory.
Celeste Fortenberry, the lawmaker’s wife, was the case’s final witness, testifying that her husband had no recollection of their first meeting. He despised making fundraising calls, according to her, and was frequently on “autopilot” when doing so.
Both sides of the trial concentrated their closing arguments on a phone call with Dr. Elias Ayoub, who hosted the Fortenberry event at his Los Angeles home in 2016.
Show me the money! – I forgot! – can you hear me now?
During the surreptitiously recorded call in June 2018, Ayoub, who was working with the FBI, informed Fortenberry that he dispersed $30,000 to friends and family who attended the fundraiser so they could send checks to Fortenberry’s campaign.
The money, according to the doctor, was donated by a friend of theirs and most likely came from Chagoury, who resides in Paris. Chagoury agreed to pay a $1.8 million punishment after admitting to funneling $180,000 in illicit political donations to four candidates in 2019.
The three persons accused of orchestrating the money transfer to Fortenberry were all of Lebanese heritage and had links to In Defense of Christians, a Middle East-based non-profit that Fortenberry sponsored.
On the phone, Fortenberry encouraged Ayoub to plan another fundraiser with supporters of their cause.
Fortenberry denied receiving donations from a foreign national or through so-called conduit contributions, in which money was routed to straw contributors, to FBI investigators in 2019.
Fortenberry, who had no idea his talk with Ayoub had been taped by agents, said it would be “horrifying” if the doctor had made such a claim regarding the source of the monies.
The audio of the call, according to defense counsel John Littrell, only portrayed what was heard on Ayoub’s end, not what Fortenberry, who had terrible mobile service, heard.
Fortenberry could have missed what Ayoub was attempting to tell him about where the money came from if he hadn’t heard three important phrases, Littrell said. Fortenberry claimed it was natural that he didn’t recall the call after more than a year.
“This is a memory test every one of us would fail,” Littrell remarked.
Littrell said the $36,000 his client raised in Los Angeles — most of it illegally — was a drop in the bucket for a congressman in an uncompetitive district with a healthy war chest. He advised jurors to believe what most witnesses stated about Fortenberry: that he was a trustworthy man.
“Do you think he would put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had $1.5 million?” Littrell remarked. “That’s not possible.”
Fortenberry’s squeaky clean reputation, Jenkins replied, was at the basis of his falsehoods.
“You build up that much of a reputation, you have a lot to lose,” he remarked. “That’s not a justification for lying; that’s a motive for lying.”
Former lawmaker Patty Pansing Brooks, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat, expressed gratitude to the jury and expressed “thoughts and prayers” for Fortenberry and his family.
“It is past time for Nebraska to elect a new governor. I will serve with integrity and fight for all Nebraskans,” she said in a statement. You have to love politicians who never hesitate to capitalize on others misfortune, like vultures to a fresh corpse.