Fortenberry Attempts to Block Fed's Corruption Case Evidence
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Jan. 11, 2022, 3:51 p.m. ·
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Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s attempts to set up legal roadblocks in the government’s corruption case against him got a chilly reception from the federal judge hearing the matter.
Appearing Tuesday in a Los Angeles, California courtroom, his attorneys attempted to block use of some evidence while asking for release of other materials they claim the government investigators are withholding. The U.S. Department of Justice claims Fortenberry lied to FBI agents investigating illegal campaign contributions.
Fortenberry skipped the hearing. Federal District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld gave permission for the defendant to remain in Washington where Congress is in session. Fortenberry also did not appear on the Zoom call for the 90-minute hearing.
Fortenberry’s two California-based lawyers requested Judge Blumenfeld to issue two orders.
First, attorney Ryan Fraser requested two interviews the congressman agreed to with FBI agents not be allowed as evidence in the trial. In Fortenberry’s telling, FBI agents assured him he was not the target of the investigation into illegal campaign contributions. His legal team argued that statement amounted to a promise, like a legal contract. Fraser told the judge it was implied that, in exchange for being a witness in cases involving others, the congressman would not be charged with a crime.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamari Buxton told the court no formal promise was made and there’s no legal precedent for giving accused criminals that type of protection. In his questioning, a skeptical Judge Blumenfeld asked repeatedly if there had been an “unambiguous promise” stating an exchange of information would result in no prosecution.
In a second motion filed in the case, Fortenberry requested the court require the U.S. Attorney’s office and federal investigators to turn over any notes or communications which might prove the government acted out of spite in filing the charges.
Defense attorney John Littrell claimed there was the potential the F.B.I. agents pushed the case forward out of spite and anger, rather than good evidence. Fortenberry’s version assumes the investigators were upset they didn’t get a confession from the Nebraska Republican.
Instead of confessing during the second FBI interview, the congressman reiterated he did not know a Liberian-born billionaire was the source of a $30,000 campaign donation. Littrel claims because federal investigators didn’t like Fortenberry’s answers they set out to punish Fortenberry.
Judge Blumenfeld questioned whether Fortenberry had evidence to support such an unusual demand of the investigators. Littrell responded they needed the documents requested in order to make the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har responded the materials requested didn’t exist and even if they did, the law protects those types of notes as work product in a criminal investigation. Court documents allege Fortenberry lied to the agents, evidenced by a recorded phone call between Fortenberry and a go-between for the foreign-born donor.
The judge will rule on the requests ahead of the trial, currently scheduled for mid-February. Because of the current COVID surge in southern California, jury trials are not being held in federal court. If the safety restrictions continue into next month, the trial could be postponed.
The criminal proceedings advance as Fortenberry launches his campaign for a tenth term representing the 1stCongressional District for the Republican Party. His Democratic opponent will likely be State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.
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