U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was convicted Thursday on charges that he lied to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 contribution to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser.
A federal jury in LA deliberated about two hours before finding the nine-term Republican guilty of one count of falsifying and concealing material facts and two counts of making false statements. Fortenberry was charged after sitting for two interviews with FBI agents who were investigating the donor, Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.
Fortenberry showed no emotion as the verdict was read but the youngest of his five daughters in the front of the gallery began sobbing uncontrollably. After the jury left the courtroom, Fortenberry walked over to his wife and the two daughters present and clasped them in a hug. He then kissed his wife on the lips and returned to a seat next to his lawyer.
Outside the courthouse, Fortenberry said the process had been unfair and he would appeal immediately. He would not say if he would suspend his campaign for reelection, saying he was going 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 said.
The judge set sentencing for June 28. Each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence and fines.
It was the first trial of a sitting congressman since Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of bribery and other felony charges in 2002.
Fortenberry, 61, argued at trial that the congressman wasn't aware of the contribution, but agents directed an informant to feed him the information in a 10-minute call to trap him.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said there was ample recorded evidence in the case and the jury's swift verdict vindicated the prosecution's efforts.
“Our view is that it was a simple story," Jenkins said. “A politician caught up in the cycle of money and power. And like I said, he lost his way.”
The trial could all but end the political career of a congressman seen as a reliable conservative who coasted to easy wins but isn’t a familiar name outside of Nebraska. Felons are eligible to run for and serve in Congress, but the vast majority choose to resign under threat of expulsion.
Fortenberry, who is running for reelection in a Republican district, took a big political hit when prosecutors announced the charges, and his indictment already divided Nebraska Republicans who backed him for years. Many prominent Republicans have endorsed state Sen. Mike Flood, a conservative state lawmaker and former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, for the congressional seat.
Prosecutors argued Fortenberry lied about what he knew about the illicit donation during an interview at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and a follow-up meeting four months later in Washington about the contribution received at a Los Angeles fundraiser.
Defense lawyers said the FBI “set up” Fortenberry after a national investigation fizzled into foreign money funneled to members of Congress. They said Fortenberry's flaw was voluntarily meeting with agents and prosecutors to help their probe and having a faulty memory.
Celeste Fortenberry, the lawmaker's wife, was the final witness in the case and testified that her husband didn't even remember the day they met. She said he loathed making fundraising calls and was often on “autopilot” when he conducted them.
Lawyers on both sides of the trial focused their closing arguments on one such call with Dr. Elias Ayoub, who held the fundraiser for Fortenberry at his Los Angeles home in 2016.
Ayoub, who was cooperating with the FBI, told Fortenberry during the call recorded in June 2018 that he distributed $30,000 to friends and relatives who attended the fundraiser so they could write checks to Fortenberry's campaign.
The doctor said the money had been provided by an associate of theirs and probably came from Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire who lives in Paris. Chagoury admitted in 2019 to funneling $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.
The three men in the alleged scheme to funnel the money to Fortenberry were all of Lebanese descent and had ties to In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit Fortenberry supported that was devoted to fighting religious persecution in the Middle East.
Fortenberry asked Ayoub on the phone call to organize another fundraiser with supporters of their cause.
In 2019, Fortenberry denied to FBI agents that he received any funds from a foreign national or through so-called conduit contributions, where the money was distributed to straw donors.
Fortenberry, who was unaware agents had recorded his call with Ayoub, said it would be “horrifying” if the doctor had made such a claim about the source of the funds.
Defense attorney John Littrell said the recording of the call only depicted what was heard on Ayoub's end and not what Fortenberry, who had poor cellphone reception, heard.
If Fortenberry had not heard as few as three crucial words, he may have missed what Ayoub was trying to tell him about where the money came from, Littrell said. The fact that Fortenberry didn't remember the call more than a year later was understandable, he said.
"This is a memory test every one of us would fail,” Littrell said.
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.
“Do you think he would put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had $1.5 million?” Littrell said. “That's not possible.”
Patty Pansing Brooks, a former legislator who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat, thanked the jury and offered “thoughts and prayers" for Fortenberry and his family.
“Now It’s time for Nebraska to elect new leadership. I will serve with integrity and fight for all Nebraskans,” she said in a statement.