LINCOLN — Federal prosecutors are accusing lawyers representing indicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of smearing the reputation of an FBI agent by falsely claiming he was biased against Arabs and Muslims.
Prosecutors, in a motion filed late Tuesday, called the claims “demonstrably false” and said that FBI Special Agent Todd Carter never “approved,” “liked” or “shared” biased drawings or any others that depict anti-Muslim or anti-Arab sentiments.
“While the damage to Agent Carter has already been done, such incendiary falsehoods should not be permitted to remain on a public docket absent any supporting evidence,” prosecutors said.
In another reply brief, government lawyers said they were under no obligation to tell Fortenberry if he was a “target” of their investigation. Fortenberry’s legal team has argued that the congressman was misled when he was told he was merely a “subject trending toward a witness,” and his statements should be tossed out.
In a legal filing Nov. 29, lawyers for Fortenberry had argued that biases held by the FBI agent could have led to “hostility” toward the Nebraska Republican, who has worked to help religious minorities in the Middle East, and thus impacted the investigation.
The defense motion included drawings depicting armor-clad crusaders attacking Muslims that defense attorneys claim were liked or shared online by Carter. One was titled: “Dealing with Muslims. They got it right the first time.”
But a court declaration filed by Carter on Tuesday said those accusations were false.
Carter said he had published a historical fiction novel titled “The Lion of the Cross: Tales of a Templar Knight” after obtaining FBI approval to do it. He said he had never seen the two drawings the defense claimed that showed bias until November 2018, when “another defense team” claimed he had “liked” them on Facebook. Carter said the next time he saw them was in the recent motion by Fortenberry’s attorneys.
“In conducting the federal investigation into defendant, I followed the facts and the evidence,” Carter wrote.
Prosecutors asked the court to remove the allegations against Carter and to reject a defense request to dismiss the charges because of the alleged biases.
The legal exchange is the latest involving Fortenberry, 60, who has been fighting for his political life since being indicted two months ago for allegedly lying to federal investigators probing illegal political contributions from a Nigerian billionaire living in Paris.
Fortenberry, who has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st District since 2005, has maintained that he was trying to cooperate with the investigation and didn’t recall details of the 2018 phone call, and that he was misled and “set up” by federal agents. His wife and supporters claim that he’s been a victim of a political persecution.
In a transcript of his July 2019 interview with the FBI in Washington, D.C., Fortenberry indicated that he was distracted during an interview four months earlier at his Lincoln home by a “bomb cyclone” that had just caused epic flooding in Nebraska and by death threats made against him.
Defense lawyers have filed a flurry of motions to dismiss the three felonies faced by Fortenberry and to move his trial out of California. That’s where the congressman, at a 2016 fundraiser, received $30,000 in political donations that were later determined to originate with Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire of Lebanese descent interested in protecting Christians in the Middle East.
Prosecutors maintain that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to federal agents during two interviews in 2019. They claim that the congressman was told, in a 2018 phone call from a person working with the FBI, that the $30,000 probably originated from Chagoury, who was acquainted with Fortenberry. It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate to U.S. political campaigns, either directly or, as in this case, through third-party conduits.
In the most recent court filing, prosecutors claim that Fortenberry’s attorneys violated a court rule to “meet and confer” before filing some of their motions. They also rejected a defense claim that they have withheld documents gathered in the federal investigation. Prosecutors said that they have shared more than 12,000 pages of information that date back to 2015, and will share more once they determine who will testify at trial, now scheduled to begin Feb. 15.
The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld of the central district of California, is currently weighing several defense requests. More defense motions will be argued during a hearing scheduled for Jan. 11, including those concerning the alleged bias of the FBI agent and the dispute over adequate discovery of information gathered by investigators.