Jeff Fortenberry trial offered tangled web of oddities

By Todd Cooper Omaha World-Herald – via the Lincoln Journal Star – Mar 26, 2022

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (center) speaks with the media outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles on Thursday. Fortenberry was convicted of charges that he lied to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 contribution to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser.  Brian Melley, Associated Press

My cmnt: My initial thoughts were that Fortenberry was being set up by the evil democrats in an FBI sting. That may still be true – especially the phone call from Ayoub – secretly recorded by the FBI – which could have simply come forward and told him to get rid of an illegal campaign donation.

My cmnt: Having read the entirety of this article I have changed my mind. I do not believe Fortenberry purposefully and knowingly sought illegal campaign donations – unlike the Clintons. Nor was he trying to get rich from his office by gaming the system like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons and the Obamas. But I do believe he showed signs of incompetence and more than a little arrogance. It appears that he – like Biden, but not nearly as bad – is losing some of his cognitive ability and like most people did not want to admit it to his friends, family or himself.

My cmnt: Still if he was a democrat I believe he would use their influence and corruption to just make it all go away. But people like Jeff are not accustomed to doing evil and don’t think defensively as a way of life. He handled the whole thing like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar rather than a typical democrat operative or politician facing a felony who would lawyer up right away. It appears he honestly didn’t think any of it was a big deal as shown by his foolishness in talking to the FBI and not seeking legal advice at the first sign of trouble.

My cmnt: Either way – incompetence or willful neglect – this whole affair shows that it was time for him to go. I have to agree with lead prosecutor Mack Jenkins, Jeff is a politician who had lost his way.

LOS ANGELES — In the end, ignorance is still not a defense. And ignorance still doesn’t equal innocence.

Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry found that out the hard way over the past two weeks in a federal courtroom that, from its rising bank of windows, offers spectacular views of everything from Los Angeles City Hall to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Fortenberry, 61, hit depths never before seen in Nebraska when he became the highest-ranking Nebraska elected official to be convicted of a felony. Three of them. On Saturday, two days after the verdict, he announced plans to resign.

Ultimately, Fortenberry took far too long to do what other politicians readily did: disgorge dirty money from a campaign, a process in which a politician rids the suspect money from his war chest and donates it to charity.

Fortenberry had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right after the February 2016 fundraiser in suburban LA, when he saw that the vast majority of the money came from people with the same last name: Ayoub. As it turns out, Eli Ayoub, a Creighton University School of Medicine graduate and LA physician, had been funneling a Nigerian billionaire’s cash to the campaigns of a handful of politicians, including Fortenberry.

Fortenberry asked a friend of Ayoub’s if anything was wrong with the fundraiser. The friend lied and said “no.” But Fortenberry had other warnings — his own campaign consultant had cautioned him about the risk. And Ayoub himself called Fortenberry, with the FBI recording the call, and told him three times that the “$30,000 cash” probably came from the Nigerian billionaire.

Even after that call, Fortenberry took a year to purge the dirty money.

In all, he ignored it for more than 40 months. Whether that was intentional or, as his defense said, the byproduct of his absent-mindedness, it was the worst thing he could have done.

At a sentencing hearing in June, his freedom is on the line. He faces five years in prison on each of the three counts. 

A look ahead, and back, at the spectacle of U.S. v. Jeffrey Fortenberry:

Sentencing

The critical question: Will Fortenberry get prison time?

For another case of deception by an elected official, look to the south and the east of the glass cube that is the U.S. District Courthouse for California’s central district. Rising on the horizon is Los Angeles City Hall, a tower that was built in the 1920s — in the same decade and with a similar design as Nebraska’s state Capitol.

That tower produced the last corruption case handled by the lead prosecutor in Fortenberry’s case: that of Los Angeles City Council member Mitchell Englander, 51.

In that case, Englander accepted money from a businessman wanting to increase his prospects in LA — about the same amount of money as Fortenberry’s campaign received.

The councilman’s spoils included access to escorts, trips to Palm Springs and Las Vegas, $1,000 in casino gambling chips and at least $15,000 in cash. He then tried to cover up the grift by back-dating reimbursement checks and asking the businessman to lie.

Englander’s attorney noted that the councilman had resigned, reimbursed the money and pleaded guilty to the charge instead of taking it to trial.

In January 2021, a federal judge, from the same courthouse that housed Fortenberry’s trial, sentenced Englander to 14 months in prison, saying his conduct “undermined the public trust.”

No two cases are the same, of course. In Fortenberry’s case, the money went to his campaign, not to him personally — and it didn’t go for gambling or sexual favors.

Then again, the council member resigned and pleaded to one charge. By contrast, Fortenberry didn’t resign, took the case to trial and was convicted of three counts.

Fortenberry finds out his fate June 28. Both prosecutors and his attorneys will submit memos, giving their version of where the federal sentencing guidelines fall in this case.

Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. can order supervised release.

The jury

The voicemail on a reporter’s phone arrived about as soon as the verdict did. A Nebraska caller grunted something about Fortenberry getting “set up” and how he should have been tried in Nebraska instead of California, where the “left-wing goons could convict him.”

The jurors included everyone from a maintenance worker to a college student to white-collar workers to an actress no one had heard of. Five of the 12 jurors were white; the rest were U.S. citizens of either Asian or Native descent.

No left- or right-wing goons were detected by reporters during jury selection.

In fact, Judge Blumenfeld — an appointee of then-President Donald Trump — predicted it: the general public doesn’t view everything through the lens of politics, the way political loudmouths do. None of the people who made the jury indicated strong opinions of either party.

Fortenberry’s membership in the Republican Party wasn’t identified at all until the defense presented its case and called a Democratic congresswoman to talk about Fortenberry’s willingness to cross the aisle.

One prospective juror even asked if the judge would define political terms for her because she doesn’t understand them, just as she didn’t understand legal jargon.

Another prospective juror didn’t make the jury. He indicated his bias wasn’t against Democrats or Republicans.

“Just politicians,” said the middle-aged white man, originally from Ohio. “They spend their whole careers not telling the truth.”

He turned to Fortenberry, sitting to the right of him. “No offense,” he said.

To testify or not

It’s an age-old question in court: If a defendant is innocent, why doesn’t he testify?

But in this case, not many observers in Courtroom 6C believed Fortenberry would take the stand. For a simple reason: “He talks too much,” said his attorney, John Littrell.

More precisely: He already had talked too much.

Fortenberry agreed to not one but two interviews with the FBI. Any defense attorney — any episode of “Law & Order” — will tell you not to talk to police unless you’re a victim or unless you have an attorney present.

Instead of calling a lawyer, Fortenberry called the police. Lincoln’s then-police chief sent two officers to Fortenberry’s home to screen the men who said they were federal agents.

Fortenberry insisted the officers stay for the interview. He would have been better off insisting on an attorney and sending all law enforcement home — Lincoln police and the FBI.

Instead, Fortenberry sat down and said he couldn’t place Ayoub, the man who held the LA fundraiser for him. The jury convicted him of lying in that interview.

He then agreed to a second interview — this time with his attorney present. His attorney at the time, Trey Gowdy, said he offered to have Fortenberry sit down with prosecutors because he was told that Fortenberry was trending “toward a witness,” not a target of the investigation.

During the interview, Fortenberry told prosecutors that he cut off the phone call with Ayoub when told that the $30,000 cash “probably” came from Chagoury. That also was a lie.

Bottom line: Faced with conflicting statements in the two interviews, Fortenberry couldn’t take the stand without prosecutors asking him which one of his statements was the truth and which was the lie.

That doesn’t present well to a jury.

The defense

Anyone who has watched criminal cases has no doubt heard some variation of what Littrell told jurors in closing arguments:

“I’m not asking you to like Congressman Fortenberry,” Littrell said. “His flaws were brought to light in this case. He talks too much. He doesn’t listen enough.”

Perhaps Littrell, who has declined to comment outside court, was worried that Fortenberry had come across as stiff or smug to jurors.

But several longtime legal observers, including a writer covering the case for a legal trade publication, thought the approach strange.

The reason: It wasn’t clear that anyone disliked Fortenberry. He appeared pleasant. And, as Littrell noted, every witness vouched for his “sterling” integrity and character.

Omitted from closing arguments: The defense didn’t mention Rep. Anna Eshoo’s comment that she would have expected the FBI to be transparent and disclose to her that she had received an illegal donation, so that she could take proper steps to correct it. (Prosecutors countered that the FBI did put Fortenberry on notice of an illegal donation, via the phone call from Ayoub.)

The dynamics of the defense team drew the attention of observers, not the least of whom was Judge Blumenfeld. Less than a month before trial, Denver defense attorney Glen Summers, known as a trial specialist, was brought into the case.

He joined Littrell, a longtime Los Angeles federal public defender who had handled the case since its inception. Another three or four attorneys rounded out Fortenberry’s defense team.

A stickler, Blumenfeld saved his sternest admonishment for Littrell.

He became incensed that Littrell had tried to suggest to jurors that Fortenberry had testified in the case, through the words on the recordings and through witnesses who had vouched for his integrity. Littrell also started to delve into what prosecutors would have done had Fortenberry taken the stand.

Prosecutors objected. Blumenfeld was livid. Outside the jury’s presence, he asked Littrell what he was trying to accomplish and suggested that he was undermining the judge’s “strong” instruction that the jurors were not “in any way” allowed to consider the fact that Fortenberry had not testified.

Summers, meanwhile, suggested that Blumenfeld’s denial of a line of questioning amounted to “reversible error.” That phrase is the nuclear bomb of attorney arguments — and Blumenfeld didn’t take kindly to it.

At another point, Blumenfeld called Summers’ argument “whiny and disrespectful.” At another point, Summers apologized for getting into a subject the judge had declared off-limits.

“I’m sorry,” Summers told the judge. “I just feel so passionate about this case.”

The almost blunder

Fortenberry and his staff made a decision that nearly haunted him at his trial.

Two days before trial, they sent a note to the House of Representatives clerk, saying they would be voting by proxy because of the “ongoing public health emergency,” i.e. COVID-19. The note made no mention of the fact that Fortenberry was on trial in Los Angeles.

The note’s language is routine, and Fortenberry’s staff said many Congress members use that standard language, even when there are other reasons for their absence. They also said they got permission from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Her office disputed that.

Prosecutors pounced on that. At one point, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamari Buxton called on the judge to allow him to introduce Fortenberry’s memo as a counter to any defense testimony that Fortenberry is steadfastly honest.

Blumenfeld considered it but ultimately decided it would require too much work to bring jurors up to speed.

Animal kingdom

Team Fortenberry pulled out all the stops to garner sympathy for the nine-term congressman. On March 17, one of Fortenberry’s daughters wheeled a stroller into the courtroom. Inside: Fortenberry’s first granddaughter, dressed in an adorable green-and-white clover onesie.

Several observers braced themselves for Blumenfeld to kick the baby out of the courtroom. Most judges do not allow infants in court.

Blumenfeld paid the baby no mind.

In opening statements, Summers introduced the jury to the baby, who didn’t make a peep. She also didn’t make an appearance the rest of trial.

Nor did Fortenberry’s chickens. That’s correct: The defense had wanted to include photos of Fortenberry and his one-time backyard chickens, as well as Fortenberry and his dog.

Prosecutors objected. The defense removed those photos from its opening slide show.

Other animals did make appearances:

Elephants. Celeste Fortenberry testified she traveled with her husband to Africa as part of the congressional conservation caucus, focused on preventing elephant poaching.

Horses. Summers noted that as part of the LA fundraising weekend, the Lebanese Catholic community bestowed an honor that would allow Fortenberry to ride a horse into any Catholic church.

Opossums. They killed the backyard chickens, Celeste Fortenberry testified.

Raccoons. Fortenberry so loathed making fundraising calls, Celeste testified, that he went into “autopilot.” He would distract himself by cooking breakfast or walking the dog or doing projects. One of those projects: fixing chimney damage caused by raccoons.

The appeal

In a post-verdict gaggle, Fortenberry was asked what his appeal would be based on. “The case,” he said.

He didn’t get much more specific other than to say: “We always thought it was going to be hard to get a fair process out here. The appeal starts immediately.”

In reality, any appeal would have to start after sentencing. The defense no doubt will bring up Blumenfeld’s refusal to let them call an expert who would have testified that Fortenberry’s memory was fallible. Translated: He wasn’t lying; he was simply not remembering.

Another, more obscure issue to watch: Prosecutors were required to establish venue, that elements of Fortenberry’s crime took place in central California. Fortenberry’s defense argued that the investigative interviews, where he was accused of lying, took place in Nebraska and Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles

Much was made about the case being in Los Angeles, where, as one observer said, “it feels like the beach, smells like the weed.”

The scene was surreal. And Fortenberry’s defense had decried it, saying the true jury of his peers was in Nebraska. But the original crime occurred in Los Angeles, at that fundraiser.

And the case wasn’t tried on the streets of L.A. It was tried the way all federal cases are. Inside a courthouse with white marble walls and white tile floors, not all that different from Omaha’s federal courthouse. Inside a courtroom with a tough judge, dueling attorneys and a jury.

All of the arguments about other factors were “noise, designed to distract from the issues at hand,” lead prosecutor Mack Jenkins said. “The jury was clearly paying attention. You saw them taking a lot of notes. They took their opportunity to deliberate. They worked very hard and ultimately, they saw it as a simple story — of a politician who lost his way.”

Nebraska US Rep. Fortenberry found guilty in campaign probe

By BRIAN MELLEY and GRANT SCHULTE – March 24, 2022

The Associated Press LOS ANGELES – in Breitbart news

A federal jury has convicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska on charges that he lied to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 contribution to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser.

Nebraska US Rep. Fortenberry found guilty in campaign probeBy BRIAN MELLEY and GRANT SCHULTEAssociated PressThe Associated PressLOS ANGELES

LOS ANGELES (AP) — U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was convicted on charges that he lied to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 contribution to his campaign from a foreign billionaire at a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser.

A federal jury in LA deliberated about two hours Thursday before finding the nine-term Republican guilty of concealing information and two counts of making false statements to authorities. Fortenberry was charged after denying to the FBI that he was aware he had received illicit funds from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.

Fortenberry showed no emotion as the verdict was read but his youngest daughter began sobbing uncontrollably in the front of the gallery as her mother tried to console her. After the jury left the courtroom, Fortenberry walked over to his wife and the two of his five daughters who were present and clasped them in a hug.

Outside the courthouse, Fortenberry said the process had been unfair and he would appeal immediately. He would not say if he would suspend his campaign for reelection, saying he was going to spend time with his family.

“I’m getting so many beautiful messages from people literally all around the world, who’ve been praying for us and pulling for us,” he said.

The judge set sentencing for June 28. Each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence and fines.

It was the first trial of a sitting congressman since Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of bribery and other felony charges in 2002.

Fortenberry, 61, did not testify but his lawyers argued at trial that he wasn’t aware of the contribution and that agents directed an informant to feed him the information in a 10-minute call to set him up.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said there was ample recorded evidence in the case and the jury’s swift verdict vindicated the prosecution’s efforts.

“Our view is that it was a simple story,” Jenkins said. “A politician caught up in the cycle of money and power. And like I said, he lost his way.”

The trial could all but end the political career of a congressman seen as a reliable conservative who coasted to easy wins but isn’t a familiar name outside of Nebraska. Felons are eligible to run for and serve in Congress, but the vast majority choose to resign under threat of expulsion.

Fortenberry took a big political hit when prosecutors announced the charges, and his indictment already divided Nebraska Republicans who backed him for years in the conservative district. Many prominent Republicans have endorsed state Sen. Mike Flood, a conservative state lawmaker and former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, for the congressional seat.

Prosecutors argued Fortenberry lied about what he knew about the illicit donation during an interview at his Lincoln home in March 2019 and a follow-up meeting four months later in Washington about the contribution received at a Los Angeles fundraiser.

Defense lawyers said Fortenberry’s flaw was voluntarily meeting with agents and prosecutors to help their probe and having a faulty memory.

Celeste Fortenberry, the lawmaker’s wife, was the final witness in the case and testified that her husband didn’t even remember the day they met. She said he loathed making fundraising calls and was often on “autopilot” when he conducted them.

Lawyers on both sides of the trial focused their closing arguments on one such call with Dr. Elias Ayoub, who held the fundraiser for Fortenberry at his Los Angeles home in 2016.

Ayoub, who was cooperating with the FBI, told Fortenberry during the secretly recorded call in June 2018 that he distributed $30,000 to friends and relatives who attended the fundraiser so they could write checks to Fortenberry’s campaign.

The doctor said the money had been provided by an associate of theirs and probably came from Chagoury, who lives in Paris. Chagoury admitted in 2019 to funneling $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.

The three men in the alleged scheme to funnel the money to Fortenberry were all of Lebanese descent and had ties to In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit Fortenberry supported that was devoted to fighting religious persecution in the Middle East.

Fortenberry asked Ayoub on the phone call to organize another fundraiser with supporters of their cause.

In 2019, Fortenberry denied to FBI agents that he received any funds from a foreign national or through so-called conduit contributions, where the money was distributed to straw donors.

Fortenberry, who was unaware agents had recorded his call with Ayoub, said it would be “horrifying” if the doctor had made such a claim about the source of the funds.

Defense attorney John Littrell said the recording of the call only depicted what was heard on Ayoub’s end and not what Fortenberry, who had poor cellphone reception, heard.

If Fortenberry had not heard as few as three crucial words, he may have missed what Ayoub was trying to tell him about where the money came from, Littrell said. The fact that Fortenberry didn’t remember the call more than a year later was understandable, he said.

“This is a memory test every one of us would fail,” Littrell said.

Littrell said the $36,000 his client raised in Los Angeles — most of it illegally — was a drop in the bucket for a congressman in an uncompetitive district with a healthy war chest. He said jurors should believe what most witnesses said about Fortenberry: he was an honest man of integrity.

“Do you think he would put his reputation on the line for $30,000 when he had $1.5 million?” Littrell said. “That’s not possible.”

Jenkins countered that Fortenberry’s squeaky clean reputation was at the root of his lies.

“You build up that much of a reputation, you have a lot to lose,” he said. “That’s not a justification for lying; that’s a motive for lying.”

____

Schulte reported from Omaha, Nebraska

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