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Political insiders split on potential fallout from Fortenberry indictment

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Here is a brief breakdown of Nebraska's senators and representatives in Congress.

LINCOLN — Republicans in Nebraska rushed to defend U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on Tuesday as the congressman was indicted for lying to FBI investigators.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Democratic Party in the state said Fortenberry was a “crook and a liar” and deserves to be replaced.

Observers, however, were split on the impact of the federal grand jury’s indictment on the congressman’s political future.

Fortenberry, who was first elected to represent Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in 2004, said in a video shot before the indictment was released Tuesday that the allegations, linked to a federal investigation into illegal campaign contributions from a Nigerian-born billionaire, were untrue and a betrayal after he had cooperated with an FBI probe.

A spokesman for the Fortenberry campaign, Chad Kolton, said Tuesday that they had just received the indictment and were reviewing it.

Republican officials who have known Fortenberry for years said they were surprised by the allegation and urged Nebraskans to avoid a rush to judgment.

“In America, we are fortunate our legal system abides by the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ mantra and this applies to Rep. Fortenberry as well,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican whose district includes Omaha, said in a statement. “The man I know is a good-hearted man and not someone I would attribute these accusations to.”

More than one official said they had a hard time believing the allegations.

“I do have a very difficult time believing the allegations. It would be very out of character for him,” said J.L. Spray, a Lincoln attorney and GOP national committeeman.

Spray said he has known Fortenberry since he was a member of the Lincoln City Council, before his election to Congress.

“Jeff is a man of integrity,” said Mark Fahleson, a former chair of the Nebraska Republican Party. He said his only crime was using long words that few people understand.

But Jane Kleeb, who chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party, said that Fortenberry had violated the trust of voters, and that Democrats should “win this seat back for the people.”

“Serving 16 years in Congress has tainted Fortenberry, who cares more about political donations than serving the people of our state,” Kleeb said.

She added that Fortenberry’s video rebuttal of the charges, released to The World-Herald on Monday, appeared to have been recorded weeks earlier, because the field of corn in the background appeared green, not yellow.

The reputational hit could open up the possibility of a challenge from another Republican in the 2022 primary, according to several political observers.

Fortenberry, at times, has supported candidates or causes not backed by the party establishment in Nebraska and in Congress.

In a 2020 legislative race that came down to two Republicans, Fortenberry joined former Gov. Dave Heineman in endorsing one candidate, while Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Republican Party backed the other candidate.

Fortenberry and Bacon both were among the 35 Republicans in the House who earlier this year voted in favor of creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That effort ultimately failed in the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Adrian Smith, Nebraska’s third house member and a fellow Republican, voiced support for Fortenberry, stating that he would reserve judgment.

“Congressman Fortenberry is committed to serving Nebraskans, and I am confident that commitment has not wavered,” Smith said in a statement. “Rather than rushing to judgment in light of this news, I will review the details as the judicial process moves forward and not jump to any conclusions on these accusations.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., also urged Nebraskans not to reach a "snap judgment" but recognize that "every American is entitled to a fair and impartial process."

While some speculated about the possibility of a primary challenger, other political observers said that voters in the current political climate are primed to dismiss allegations they might see as politically connected — as Fortenberry’s wife claimed in a statement defending her husband on Tuesday morning.

Perre Neilan, a political consultant and lobbyist based in Lincoln, said he didn’t see the issue impacting Fortenberry’s ability to serve and be reelected.

“Nebraskans know Jeff Fortenberry as a man of integrity,” Neilan said. “His only crime was saying ‘yes’ when the government knocked on his door and let them in.”

Josh Moenning, a former chief of staff for Fortenberry, said the congressman was a “good man and an effective and tireless advocate for the people” in his district.

“I’ve known him to show only the highest level of regard for the law and every obligation that comes with being an elected official,” said Moenning, who was elected mayor of Norfolk in 2016 and reelected in 2020. “Nebraskans continue to elect him, in lopsided margins, because they know him, trust him, and respect his work on their behalf.”

Under House GOP rules, Fortenberry will likely have to resign from his committee assignments for the time being. He would be reinstated if he is acquitted, or if the charges are dismissed or reduced. The rule also includes a provision allowing GOP House members to waive that rule with a majority vote.

Fortenberry serves on the House Appropriations Committee and two subcommittees, one on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies and the other on State and Foreign Operations.

Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, with recently redrawn boundaries, includes Bellevue, Offutt Air Force Base, La Vista and the bulk of Papillion in Sarpy County. The district also includes all or part of 11 other counties in eastern Nebraska, including Lancaster County.


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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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