Fortenberry sentenced to probation, $25,000 fine for lying to FBI

June 28, 2022, 1:15 p.m. ·

An artists rendering of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry in court.
U.S. Rep. Fortenberry listens to testimony in his political corruption trial. (Sketch: Mona Schafer Edwards)

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A Federal Judge in California sentenced former Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry to two years probation and over 300 hours of community service after being found guilty of three counts of lying to federal investigators. He must also pay a $25,000 fine.

Jeff Fortenberry leaves the federal courthouse holding hands with his wife Celeste.
During his March 2022 trial, Jeff Fortenberry leaves the federal courthouse holding hands with his wife Celeste. (Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media)

The U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case suggested a six-month prison term.

In a written statement following the verdict, Fortenberry maintained his innocence and promised to appeal.

After a two-week March trial, a jury found Fortenberry guilty of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Testimony revealed the former nine-term Congressman intentionally misled FBI agents during an investigation into illegal campaign contributions from a Nigerian billionaire. Non-US citizens cannot make donations to members of Congress.

That businessman, Gilbert Chagoury, admitted he concealed $30,000 in contributions using fake donors at a Los Angeles fundraising party.

While Fortenberry may not have been aware of the original scheme, he was later told by the host of the fundraiser, Dr. Elias Ayoub, in a phone call set up and recorded by the FBI. It became the centerpiece of the government’s case to the jury.

Phone Call Excerpt
Transcript presented as evidence at the trial of Jeff Fortenberry (Graphic: Nebraska Public Media News)

At today’s sentencing hearing, Judge Stanley Blumenfeld said, “what is clear is that Mr. Fortenberry turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the information that he was clearly provided by Dr. Ayoub in June of 2016.”

“The evidence clearly supports the finding by the jury that Mr. Fortenberry was not blind and he was not deaf. He saw, he heard, and he certainly knew that the contributions were, at a minimum, conduit contributions.”

Conduit contributions, designed to be concealed by providing the money to third parties, are also known as “straw donors.” This was the scheme used by Chagoury to funnel his donation to the Congressman.

Courtroom sketch of Federal Judge Stanley Blumenfeld
Sketch of Federal District Judge Blumenfeld during March 2022 trial. (Artist: Mona Shafer Edwards)

Judge Blumenfeld continued, “when he was confronted with those circumstances by the FBI, Mr. Fortenberry chose the wrong path. He decided to respond with dishonesty rather than honesty. And lying, especially in this context, is certainly a serious matter.”

In considering whether the harshest punishment was justified, the judge also noted “this wrongful, dishonest choice was out of character,” adding “by all accounts, the defendant is a man of exceptional character.” He cited testimony from the prosecutor’s own witnesses, who generally respected Fortenberry.

Judge Blumenfeld also noted that the U.S. Attorney’s office had provided examples of elected officials sentenced to prison for crimes committed in office. Those cases, the judge replied, had been far more egregious cases of bribery, perjury, and cases where there was a financial gain for those convicted. They were not considered to be comparative.

He also noted the original targets of the investigation, including the billionaire Chagoury, had received fines and no jail time in plea agreements negotiated by the U.S. Attorney.

Attorney John Littrell leaves Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles in March 2022
John Littrell, lead defense attorney for Jeff Fortenberry

Fortenberry’s lead defense counsel, John Littrell, asked the judge to reconsider “such a significant fine.” With his resignation from Congress, Littrel noted that Fortenberry would lose his federal pension.

“He is now in a position where he has to support his five daughters, two of whom are in college. But also his aging mother and his sister, they all rely on him,” Littrell said, “He has to start over.”

Following the hearing, Fortenberry emailed a statement to reporters maintaining his innocence and vowing to appeal the verdict.

“This is a case that never should have been brought, and certainly not in California,” he wrote. “As the Judge explained today, I knew nothing about the conspiracy to illegally funnel money to my campaign. I was kept in the dark about it, just like other candidates who received similar illegal campaign contributions. I trusted the FBI agents and prosecutors from the Department of Justice. They took advantage of that trust.”

He added, “this entire matter has been deeply traumatic for me and my family, but we’re still here, still standing.”

He must report to the California probation office within 72 hours.

Before adjourning, the judge said, “I do wish you the best of luck, Mr. Fortenberry.”