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Feds blast back at Rep. Fortenberry's claim that he was 'set up'
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Feds blast back at Rep. Fortenberry's claim that he was 'set up'

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LINCOLN — Federal prosecutors have fired back against claims that the FBI “set up” U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, saying that the only set-up was when the Republican congressman “intentionally, repeatedly and proactively” lied to investigators.

In court briefs filed Tuesday, attorneys with the Central California U.S. District Attorney’s Office asked a judge to reject motions by Fortenberry’s defense lawyers to dismiss three felony indictments alleging he misled and lied to federal investigators.

“Contrary to defendant’s revisionist and misleading re-tellings, the only person who ‘set up’ defendant for this prosecution was defendant himself ...” stated one brief, filed by two lead prosecutors in the case.

Chad Kolton, a spokesman for Fortenberry’s re-election campaign, said Wednesday that the “attack” on the congressman’s character from prosecutors doesn’t change the fact that the FBI instructed one of its informants to call Fortenberry in 2018 to tell him something he didn’t know — that $30,000 in contributions he had received in 2016 were illegal.

Fortenberry, Kolton said, was charged after he “failed to recall the details (of the phone call) to their satisfaction.”

“That is a set-up, pure and simple,” the spokesman said.

The statements marked the latest salvo in a politically charged case that has Fortenberry, who had been seen as a shoo-in to win re-election in 2022, fighting for his political life. The 60-year-old congressman has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005.

Fortenberry has denied that he lied and has pledged to fight the charges. He, his wife and his associates maintain he was attempting to aid the FBI’s investigation into illegal “conduit” campaign contributions from a foreign national, a Nigerian billionaire living in Paris, but is now a victim of a politically inspired prosecution.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, allege that Fortenberry lied repeatedly after being informed, in the 2018 phone call, that $30,000 in contributions he received at a February 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles from a group of Lebanese Americans “probably did come” from Gilbert Chagoury, a billionaire with a controversial past and an interest in Middle East policies.

The indictments, issued Oct. 19, allege that when FBI agents interviewed Fortenberry at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and during a Washington, D.C., meeting in July 2019, the congressman lied about knowing that the donations were illegal.

He also was charged with failing to amend his federal campaign contribution statements to reflect that the money didn’t come from six L.A.-area residents, but from Chagoury. The money was funneled through a Washington, D.C., associate who worked for a group, In Defense of Christians, which works to protect Christians in the Middle East.

Fortenberry wasn’t indicted for knowingly taking illegal campaign contributions in 2016 but for alleged misstatements made to federal investigators later in 2019, and failing to amend his campaign contributions report.

His attorneys have filed motions to dismiss the indictments against him, claiming that they were filed in the wrong court because any alleged misstatements occurred in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., not California. They also maintain that charges should be dropped because any claimed misstatements made by Fortenberry were not “material” to the FBI investigation against Chagoury, because the FBI already knew that the congressman wasn’t aware that the $30,000 in donations originated from the billionaire.

But in their court brief Tuesday, prosecutors said that the federal investigation wasn’t over when Fortenberry was interviewed in 2019, and that additional information — such as whether the donations influenced the congressman — was being sought.

“The investigation’s concerns that defendant knew about the illicit funds his campaign received, and that a larger bribery or improper influence scheme was possible, were heightened after the 2018 call when defendant expressed no surprise or concern about that fact but instead ‘continued to ask Individual H to host another fundraiser for defendant,’ “ the prosecutor’s court brief stated.

In a fundraising email earlier this week, Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, said it was “scary” that the FBI was being weaponized “against political enemies.”

A court hearing is scheduled Dec. 14 in Los Angeles to take arguments on the motions filed in the Fortenberry case.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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