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Fortenberry attorneys accuse trial judge of mistakenly allowing prosecution


Fortenberry attorneys accuse trial judge of mistakenly allowing prosecution

Mar 21, 2023 | 12:38 am ET
By Paul Hammel
Fortenberry attorneys accuse trial judge of mistakenly allowing prosecution
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry his wife, Celeste, and his defense attorneys arrive at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles during his trial in March 2022. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Attorneys for former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry repeated arguments Monday that he was improperly tried in California for making false statements to federal agents and that his statements shouldn’t have prompted criminal charges.

Defense attorneys said that the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, mistakenly allowed the trial to proceed in a Los Angeles courtroom a year ago.

The trial ended with jurors finding the nine-term congressman guilty of three felonies involving lying to federal investigators and concealing illegal campaign donations.

‘Convictions should be vacated’

“… Because venue did not lie in California, and because the jury was permitted to convict based on an improper theory of materiality, the Congressman’s convictions should be vacated,” stated the 35-page brief, signed by Washington, D.C., attorney Kannon Shanmugam.

Monday’s written arguments were the final ones to be submitted to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Fortenberry’s effort to get his conviction overturned.

An appeal was formally filed in October, and prosecutors submitted a response in January.

Immediately after he was found guilty, Fortenberry expressed doubt that he could get a fair trial in California, a bright blue state compared to reliably red Nebraska.

The congressman, who resigned shortly after his conviction, 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.

Mack Jenkins
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins, the lead prosecutor, spoke to reporters after the guilty verdict in Fortenberry trial. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire

Fortenberry became ensnared in a Justice Department investigation of Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury for illegal campaign contributions.

Chagoury, who lives in Paris, eventually agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine for contributions, funneled through third parties, to a handful of U.S. political campaigns, including Fortenberry’s. It is illegal for foreigners to contribute to American campaigns or to do so through conduits or “straw men.”

During a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles, Fortenberry was given about $30,000 that had originated with Chagoury and funneled to a group of Lebanese-Americans grateful for the congressman’s support of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

Eventually, one of those involved in the fundraiser — by then working with the FBI — told Fortenberry in a phone call that the L.A. donations were illegal because they probably came from Chagoury.

But Fortenberry, in interviews with federal officials in March 2019 at his Lincoln home and July 2019 in Washington, D.C., denied knowing the donations were illegal, leading to the charges filed two years later.

In Monday’s brief, Fortenberry’s attorneys maintained, as they did prior to the trial, that the proceeding should be moved to Nebraska or Washington, D.C., because that’s where the statements “at issue” were made.

Defense says statements not material

They also challenged the idea that Fortenberry’s statements were “material” to the broader investigation into the activities of Chagoury and a Washington-based group “In Defense of Christians,” which helped organize the L.A. fundraiser.

Prosecutors have maintained that California was the proper venue for the trial because that’s where the investigation into Chagoury’s donations began.

They also argued that they were concerned that Chagoury’s donations to Fortenberry might have inspired some actions in Congress. In the course of investigating that, prosecutors said, the congressman wasn’t truthful about the origin of his L.A. donations.

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Terry also received a donation from Chagoury, in 2014. But Terry gave away the money to charity soon after being contacted by the FBI and avoided any federal charges.

Only after the two interviews with federal agents in 2019 did Fortenberry give his $30,000 away.