LOS ANGELES — History hit Jeff Fortenberry with a devastating blow Thursday.
A federal jury deliberated less than two hours before convicting the nine-term Nebraska congressman on one count of concealing conduit campaign contributions and two counts of lying to federal agents.
Fortenberry, a 61-year-old Republican, is the highest-ranking elected official to be convicted of a felony in Nebraska history.
Fortenberry betrayed little emotion as the verdict was read. After the guilty verdict was read on the concealment charge, Fortenberry closed his eyes and kept them closed for at least a minute.
His youngest daughter dropped her head into her hands and heaved. His oldest daughter doubled over in the courtroom gallery, her boyfriend comforting her.
Celeste Fortenberry, who had testified earlier Thursday, remained mostly stoic. She comforted her daughters, then her husband, cupping his face with her hands and giving her husband of 26 years a kiss.
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U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. set sentencing for June 28. The congressman faces up to five years in prison on each count, although he also could receive supervised release.
Ironically, he does not have to give up his congressional seat. Federal law requires members of Congress to give up their seats only for crimes that are tied to treason.
It is unclear whether Fortenberry’s campaign will continue. He faces a Republican challenger in the May primary: State Sen. Mike Flood. Two Democrats, including State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, also are vying for the seat.
Fortenberry’s staff, including his current chief of staff Andy Braner, sat outside a courtroom, stunned. Braner left the courthouse with his hands stuffed in his suit pockets.
Fortenberry exited the courtroom to a gaggle of about seven members of the Nebraska press corps.
“Thank you all for coming out here; this is important to Nebraska,” Fortenberry said. “We always thought it was going to be hard to get a fair process out here. This appeal starts immediately.”
Actually, any appeals typically would have to wait until after the June sentencing, although attorneys can ask for a new trial before then.
Fortenberry — the judge determined he was not a flight risk and allowed him to remain free pending sentencing — said his phone was buzzing. One of the texts: a note from one of his five daughters.
“She said, ‘I love you Daddy, no matter what anyone else accuses you of,’” Fortenberry said. “Just remember so many other people do, too.”
Asked if he would continue his campaign, Fortenberry said his family is going to sit down and evaluate next steps.
The jury of four men and eight women convicted the congressman after watching several tapes of him making incriminating statements.
The investigation ramped up when the FBI discovered that a Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, had been funneling cash into the campaigns of four Republican politicians: former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, current California Rep. Darrell Issa, former Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry and Fortenberry.
It is illegal for U.S. elected officials to accept foreign money.
The World-Herald asked prosecutor Mack Jenkins, who led the case with the help of prosecutors Susan Har and Jamari Buxton, if Fortenberry would have been prosecuted had he gotten rid of the money soon after learning it was suspect. The other three politicians weren’t prosecuted; they got rid of any illegal money soon after they were confronted. Fortenberry took 2½ years to give his to charity. And was evasive along the way.
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” Jenkins said. “But I would say that the inaction in this case was certainly evidence of a scheme to conceal.”
Jenkins was asked for his message to Nebraskans.
“Hopefully they see that the federal government nationwide ensures that politicians follow the law,” Jenkins said. “Wherever they are.”
During closing arguments, prosecutors laid out a slide show of the illegal flow of foreign money into Fortenberry’s campaign coffers because of the congressman’s support for “the cause.” That cause was the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Chagoury gave a bag of $30,000 cash to Toufic Baaklini. Baaklini passed it to Los Angeles Dr. Eli Ayoub. Ayoub gave it to his relatives so they could write checks to Fortenberry at an LA fundraiser in 2016.
Har, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors to disregard the defense’s suggestion that FBI agents ambushed or targeted Fortenberry.
“The question is not, ‘How could they look into the defendant?’" Har told jurors. “The question is, ‘How could they not?’"
Fortenberry’s defense questioned how the prosecution could base its entire case on a 10-minute phone call from Ayoub to Fortenberry.
In that June 4, 2018, call, recorded by the FBI, Ayoub told Fortenberry three times that Baaklini provided $30,000 in cash and that the cash “probably came from Chagoury.”
Attorney John Littrell blasted the FBI for waiting 293 days before confronting Fortenberry about the phone call and expecting him to remember everything.
He also blasted the lead FBI agent in the case — Todd Carter — for a memo he wrote in which he laid out, before interviewing the congressman, that he would be seeking to charge Fortenberry with misprision (concealment) of conduit contributions and, if he lied, making false statements.
“If you already have plans to indict someone, this is not a search for the truth,” Littrell said. “This is a setup.”
Littrell noted that Fortenberry’s campaign had $1.5 million in its coffers.
“Do you really think he would take and put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had almost $1.5 million in the bank?” Littrell asked jurors. “There’s no way he would.”
Littrell put up a slide emphasizing Fortenberry’s “presumption of innocence.” He followed that with a slide of Fortenberry’s official office photo that said “presumption of integrity.”
The defense attorney said he had never been in a case where every witness acknowledged that the defendant had a sterling reputation.
“Every government witness testified that he is a truthful person, a man of integrity,” Littrell said. One witness “said it best: He brings integrity to everything he does.”
That said, Littrell told jurors his client is “flawed.”
“He talks too much,” Littrell said. “He doesn’t listen enough. He should have paid more attention to his fundraisers.
“That’s all true. But that’s not a crime. ... Having a faulty memory is not a crime.”
Littrell also noted the phone call had been played several times in court. He suggested to jurors that if they had to listen to the call again, that would amount to reasonable doubt. After all, he said, Fortenberry heard the call only once.
“If he didn’t hear, understand or recall the June 2018 call, then he’s not guilty of all three counts,” Littrell said.
Har and Jenkins said there’s ample evidence that Fortenberry heard Ayoub’s words and was concerned.
The defense itself noted that he talked to four people after the phone call, including his wife. Celeste Fortenberry testified that she advised him to contact an attorney.
Fortenberry did. However, that attorney said Fortenberry was so vague about what had been said that she considered it a nonissue. He definitely didn’t say anything about the possibility of foreign money into his campaign, the attorney testified.
Har said one of the most obvious restrictions on political fundraising is the ban on foreign money.
“It’s essentially campaign finance 101,” she said.
She said Fortenberry could have taken several off ramps. He could have picked up on his instincts that most of the checks had been written by one family. He could have gotten rid of the money by disgorging it — the formal term for when a politician donates suspected dirty money to charity.
He didn’t want to, Har said. He was running for reelection, she said, and he didn’t want the embarrassment surrounding a scandal of foreign cash in his campaign.
Prosecutors also pointed out several lies that they say Fortenberry told during interviews with the FBI. Handed a photo of Ayoub, Fortenberry told agents during an interview at his home in Lincoln that he wasn’t placing the doctor. After a few seconds, he said Ayoub may have given him a donation.
Littrell had pointed out in defense arguments that Fortenberry didn’t recognize Ayoub because the photo was at least 10 years old, taken from a time when Ayoub still had dark, instead of silver, hair.
But Har noted that FBI agents had repeated Ayoub’s name several times. And Fortenberry clearly had a rapport with the LA doctor, based in part on the fact that the doctor had spent nine years of his medical training in Omaha.
“Not placing him?” Har asked. “It’s someone who hosted a fundraiser for him.”
In a follow-up interview in Washington, D.C., in July 2019, Fortenberry also claimed that he had cut off the Ayoub phone call when Ayoub said illegal cash may have been injected into his campaign. But audio of the phone conversation proves Fortenberry didn’t cut off the call.
“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple case,” Jenkins said. “It’s an all-too-familiar story of a politician caught up in the system, caught up in the cycle of power, who lost his way.”