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Rep. Jeff Fortenberry barred from handling evidence in working on his defense

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LINCOLN — A federal judge has signed a pretrial order barring U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry from possessing or being left alone with evidence gathered by confidential informants in a case alleging the congressman lied to the FBI during an investigation into illegal campaign contributions.

While Fortenberry’s defense attorney said that such a protection order is “not an unusual step at all” in cases involving confidential informants, a Lincoln trial attorney — who is also a former state Democratic Party chair — said it didn’t look good in a case involving an elected official.

Fortenberry, a Republican, has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005.

“It’s not a good sign when a judge doesn’t trust a United States congressman to follow the rules,” said Vince Powers, who practices in federal court in Nebraska.

Powers said that in his career, he’s seen only one other protection order of that kind approved, and that was in a case involving a drug dealer and fear of harm to a witness.

However, Fortenberry’s defense attorney, John Littrell, disputed that, issuing a statement saying that such motions are not “at all” unusual in California.

“The prosecution proposes an order like this in any case involving the use of confidential informants,” Littrell said. “The protective order does not limit the Congressman’s access to information, and it will not inhibit our ability to defend this case.”

U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. of Los Angeles signed the protection order on Thursday. It was requested by federal prosecutors who said that dissemination of “sensitive” information could lead to identifying confidential informants, jeopardizing their work in other cases and exposing them to “potential safety risks.”

The seven-page order also states that distribution of the materials could affect “ongoing investigations” of other public officials.

The order states that Fortenberry can view evidence and statements gathered by confidential informants only in the presence of his defense attorneys — he cannot be “left alone” with those materials. Fortenberry, according to the order, is also barred from taking any of the materials with him. He cannot write down or “memorialize” any of the information.

The protection order clears the way for prosecutors to share with Fortenberry’s attorneys statements and recordings gathered by confidential informants. That information can be used by Fortenberry’s attorney to prepare for their defense or in reaching a plea deal.

The 60-year-old congressman has pleaded not guilty. He is charged with three felonies — two counts of making false statements to investigators and one count of trying to conceal information. Littrell has said his client was misled.

A “Fight with Fort” tweet earlier this week from Fortenberry’s wife blasted “politically motivated FBI agents” for allegedly manufacturing “fake crimes against patriots.”

“Did you know that FBI agents can lie to you? But if they decide you’ve lied to them, they can slap you with a felony accusation?” the tweet read.

The tweet, addressed to “Fellow Patriot,” alleges that the FBI gained an initial interview with Fortenberry in March 2019 by lying to gain entrance to the congressman’s house.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California has declined to comment on the claims.

The grand jury indictment states that an informant used by the FBI told Fortenberry, in a 2018 phone conversation, that $30,200 in contributions he’d been given at a Los Angeles fundraiser originated from a Nigerian billionaire. It is illegal for foreigners to contribute to U.S. political campaigns, either directly or as “conduit contributions” through others.

A Fortenberry spokesman has said the congressman didn’t recall all the details of that 2018 phone call when questioned by federal investigators twice during 2019.

A December trial has been set in the case, but motions are expected to be filed that would delay a trial for several months.


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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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