Updates: Rep. Jeff Fortenberry to Resign After Being Found Guilty of Federal Corruption Charges

2022年3月26日18:00 ·

In an artist's rendering, defense attorney John Littrell questions a witness.
Defense attorney John Littrell questions Toufic Baaklini. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry has been found guilty on three counts in his federal corruption trial in Los Angeles. The U.S. Attorney in California indicted the 1st District representative from Nebraska last year. Fortenberry was found guilty of lying to FBI agents investigating alleged illegal campaign contributions from a Nigerian billionaire.


SATURDAY, MARCH 26

Two days after being found guilty of federal corruption charges, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska announced he will resign from Congress. In a letter Saturday to his colleagues in Congress, Fortenberry began with a poem he said was written on the walls of Mother Teresa's children's home in Calcutta. He then wrote, "It has been my honor to serve with you in the United States House of Representatives. Due to the difficulty of my current circumstances, I can no longer effectively serve. I will resign from Congress effective March 31, 2022."

Fortenberry ended his letter by writing, "It has been my pleasure to call many of you friends. May God bless you as you labor for the good of our country, help those in need, and strive for what is right and just."

THURSDAY, MARCH 24

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska has been found guilty on all three counts in his federal corruption trial in Los Angeles. The jury took just more than two hours to reach its decision. As the verdict was announced, Fortenberry faced forward, looking grim. His wife Celeste, who testified on his behalf earlier in the day, and their two daughters wept openly. After the jury left the room, Fortenberry walked to the spectators' area and gave them a long hug.

Fortenberry will return to California for a June sentencing. The three federal charges could add up to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Probation and fines are also a possibility. Fortenberry was determined not to be a danger to the community or a flight risk and was released on bond.

In a brief statement following the verdict, Fortenberry said his team felt it would be "hard to have a fair process here" and said his team would appeal.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23

As the trial of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry heads to its conclusion, his defenders focused on personal integrity and evidence that he was not aware of illegal campaign donations as government prosecutors contend.

A congressional colleague defended Fortenberry from the witness stand on Wednesday. Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat representing California’s Silicon Valley, bonded with the Nebraskan in their efforts to protect minority Christians in the Middle East. She claimed Fortenberry “brings integrity to everything he does.”

Then, minutes later, questioned by prosecutors, Representative Eshoo stated politicians taking money from foreign citizens is undemocratic. She told the jury massive campaign donations from the wealthy have “chipped away at the confidence” among Americans. That is the system that caused so much trouble for Congressman Fortenberry.

Also on the stand was the lawyer Fortenberry brought with him for a second F.B.I. interview in 2019. When Trey Gowdy, attorney and former congressional Republican, scheduled the meeting with the investigators he hadn’t been told Fortenberry knew donations to his campaign were illegal. He also didn’t know that conversation had been recorded.

It assumed the U.S. Attorney could use Fortenberry to testify against the source of money. Instead, as the congressman continued to deny knowledge of the funds, he faced the charges.

His defense attorneys maintain that charging Fortenberry with lying had been the goal all along.

Another defense strategy: testimony from Fortenberry’s chief of staff, combined with pages of his office schedule were employed to convince jurors a tired and distracted politician did not fully comprehend the phone call when Fortenberry learned of the billionaire’s campaign donation.

The congressman’s wife Celeste is expected to testify Thursday morning.

TUESDAY, MARCH 22

In the final days of the political corruption trial of Jeff Fortenberry, statements made during a pair of interviews with federal investigators are haunting the congressman. 

He's charged with lying to law enforcement during a probe into illegal donations made by a Nigerian businessman. 

Congressman Fortenberry met twice with federal law enforcement officials investigating the illegal campaign donations of billionaire Gilbert Chagaury. 

During the first interview, FBI and IRS agents arrived unannounced on a Saturday night in 2019. The rankled congressmen, fatigued and unaware agents, were recording video, called them "unprofessional" before submitting to their questions.

Celeste Fortenberry (left) holds her husbands hand. Two of their daughters are on the right.
Cong. Jeff Fortenberry and his wife, Celeste, (Left) leave the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles after a day of testimony. (Photo by Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)

He denied knowing people attending the L.A. fundraiser had served as covert conduits, donating money on behalf of Chagaury. 

In a second meeting with investigators, this one requested by Fortenberry, he insisted it would be "horrifying" to learn the campaign accepted illegal donations. "That is not part of my world," he told an assistant U.S. Attorney. 

That's not what investigators heard a year earlier when they recorded a phone call between Fortenberry and the host of a fundraiser who divvied up 30 thousand dollars to straw donors writing checks on behalf of Chagaury. 

On Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Edward Choe listed multiple examples of interview inconsistencies and campaign finance reports contradicting Fortenberry's version on the witness stand. 

After the jury left court yesterday, one of Fortenberry's attorneys labeled the FBI interviews "a flawed memory test," inferring the defendant wasn't deceitful but merely forgetful about details of the donations. 

Defense cross-examination of Agent Choe starts Wednesday morning.


On Tuesday's All Things Considered, Will Baur of Nebraska Public Media spoke with our reporter on the scene, Bill Kelly.

Will Bauer:   It sounds like prosecutors made public additional secretly recorded conversations. These interviews led the government to claim Congressman Fortenberry violated the law by lying to a federal agent?

Bill Kelly: Yes. Two interviews were done in 2019—one surprise visit to Fortenberry's home in Lincoln. We could hear and see the interview because Fortenberry was unknowingly recorded by a video spy camera hidden in one of the agent's bags.

There's a second one, done at Fortenberry's request in Washington D.C.

This morning the prosecutors played a series of clips from the 45-minute long one conducted in his home in March 2019.

Bauer:   What did the jury hear?

Kelly: It started when two federal agents, one from the FBI the other from the Internet Revenue Service, left a phone message for Fortenberry claiming they are from the Omaha office and doing a national security background check. Obviously, that wasn't true. They wanted to talk about illegal campaign contributions. The agents used the deception in the hopes of not alerting off the target of the investigation.

The agents show up at his home. His wife greets them at the door. The congressman was not home. She calls the Lincoln police department because these two men have shown up unannounced on a Saturday night. She's so concerned that she even calls the Lincoln police department, which sends over a few uniformed officers. Fortenberry shows up a short time later.

Bauer: How did Congressman Fortenberry appear during the recorded interview?

Kelly: For starters, the congressman insisted the police officers stay put and listen as the federal agents conducted the interview. 

Early on, he was very defensive. On the recording, he complained to the agents about their "surprising level of unprofessionalism." The video played in court today shows him taking a seat and agreeing to answer questions. From there on, he was calm, but several times either said he did not remember items or did not answer questions directly.

Bauer: The indictment claims Fortenberry lied during this interview. Did he?

Kelly: James O'Leary, the IRS agent on the stand today, told the jury believes Fortenberry lied. The investigators already have a recording of the congressman speaking with the fundraiser host who handed out illegal cash from the Nigerian billionaire. Fortenberry doesn't know about that recording. 

When the agents ask him whether his campaign received donations from a foreign national, Fortenberry avoids the question or replies all donations are on the public record. The government says the source of the donation was NOT on public record…that the public record hides the source of the gift. 

Bauer: That's the version presented by the U.S. Attorney. How is Congressman Fortenberry responding to what's heard on tape?

Kelly: His defense team is chiseling away at a couple of things. 

First, they have already tried to establish that Fortenberry may not have fully heard or comprehended the donations were illegal during the phone call when the fundraiser's host tells him the money did not come from American donors. 

Also, they are attempting to discredit the interview techniques used by the federal agents: the early deception about the purpose of the visit and arriving on a Saturday night when Fortenberry was unprepared and tired. Also, there is the fact that three years had passed since the fundraiser scheme. 

Bauer:  So, what is a jury to do about weighing this part of the case?

Kelly: Judge Stanley Blumenfeld summed that all up. During a small skirmish between attorneys over the wording used to describe the interview, the judge turned to the jury and told them:" You heard a characterization of the evidence, but you just heard the evidence. You decide."

It's expected they will begin deliberating the case Thursday afternoon.

MONDAY, MARCH 21

One time friends shared their dismay Monday over how their ill-advised scheme to help what they referred to as "the cause" broke their personal bond and landed a political alley in court.

The scenes played out at the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles, where Congressman Jeff Fortenberry stands trial on charges of lying to F.B.I. agents.

Toufic Baaklini, the "go-between" who arranged for a billionaire's illegal campaign donations to make their way into Fortenberry's campaign, testified that his friendship with the Nebraskan ended when he agreed to cooperate with federal investigators looking for evidence the donations influenced members of Congress.

In an artist's rendering, Congressman Fortenberry briefly cries in court during his trial
Congressman Fortenberry briefly cries in court during his trial. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

According to courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards, who had a clear vantage point, as Baaklini spoke of the severed relationship, Fortenberry appeared to briefly cry.

Fortenberry maintained a close enough relationship with Baaklini to invite him to visit Pope Francis and be in the audience for the U.S. president's State of the Union address.

Much of Monday's testimony recalled details of the 2016 fundraising event in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb that brought on the legal storm enveloping Fortenberry.

In addition to Baaklini, those being questioned were one of the hosts of the gathering and Fortenberry's former campaign fundraising consultant.

The illegal donations originated with Gilbert Chagaury, a Lebanese-born billionaire committed to raising awareness of the violent persecution of the Christian and Yazidi minorities in the Middle East. Fortenberry drew his attention as an advocate for what members of the Lebanese community referred to as "The Cause."

The issue took a tragic turn ten years ago when members of the radical Islamic State murdered hundreds in Iraq. Baaklini got very choked up talking about Christians giving their lives for their faith.

Baaklini helped Chagaury route money to several congressional campaigns by using 'straw donors" to obscure the source as a foreign national. He did so in 2016 by arranging for the host of Fortenberry's L.A. fundraiser to distribute $30,000 to individuals who wrote smaller denomination checks to the campaign.

The U.S. Attorney claims Fortenberry was later made aware the donations violated federal law.

Under questioning by defense attorney John Littrell, Baaklini claimed the congressman had no part in or knowledge of the fundraising deception before straw donors wrote the checks.

In an artist's rendering, defense attorney John Littrell questions a witness.
Defense attorney John Littrell questions Toufic Baaklini. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

Littrell: "You never told Fortenberry the scheme?"

Baaklini: "No."

Littrell: "He asked you if there was anything wrong, and you told him no?"

Baaklini: "Yes. That's correct."

Littrell: "That was a lie to protect (Fortenberry)?"

Baaklini: "Yes."

While the charges center of Fortenberry lying to the F.B.I. investigators, Baaklini's version would seem to provide the jury with context about Fortenberry's role in obtaining Chagoury's money.

Backline recruited another prominent member of the Los Angeles Lebanese community to help organize the 2016 fundraiser for Fortenberry and distribute Chagaury's cash to the guests used as straw donors.

Dr. Elias Ayoub, 77, graduated from Omaha's Creighton University Medical School in the 1960s. In the original indictment, the U.S. Attorney only referred to him as Individual H. Having been caught helping Chagaury conceal the illegal donations and face the possibility of prison, Ayoub agreed to assist the F.B.I. in placing a secretly recorded phone call.

Segments of the call have been played for the jury repeatedly during the trial. In it, Ayoub tells Fortenberry at least three times the donations made at the fundraiser were illegal.

In an artist's rendering, Dr. Elias Ayoub testifies in the trial of Congressman Fortenberry
Dr. Elias Ayoub testifies in the trial of Congressman Fortenberry. (Sketch: Mona Shaffer Edwards)

Throughout the trial defense attorneys have implied Fortenberry might not have clearly heard or understood the meaning of Ayoub's statements. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mac Jenkins attempted to put that speculation to rest during his questioning.

Jenkins: Do you believe there was any miscommunication?

Ayoub: No.

Jenkins: Were (Fortenberry's) replies relevant to your statements?

Ayoub: Yes. He heard me, and he understood me.

Ayoub and campaign fundraising consultant Alexandra Kendrick described the "elegant, classy event" for the jury, honoring candidate Fortenberry in 2016.

Guests were invited to the home of Dr. Nabil Khoury, tucked away behind security gates in the Los Angeles suburb of Rolling Hills. (The median sale price for a home in March 2022 is $3.2 Million.)

The guest list consisted largely of members of the Lebanese community in California, including doctors, dentists, and property developers. A Catholic bishop, Rev. Abdallah E. Zaidan, also attended.

In an artist's rendering, Alexandra Kendrick is cross-examined by Asst. US Attorney Susan Harr
Alexandra Kendrick is cross-examined by Asst. US Attorney Susan Harr. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

Even as the event was being planned, Kendrick was uneasy about how the donations were tracked and received. She testified of having difficulty getting advance information about the donors necessary to fulfill reporting requirements of the Federal Election Commission. Having had a "nightmare" experience with another candidate years earlier, it raised the possibility of concealed third-party donations. She noted her concern on a briefing report to Fortenberry's staff.

Nonetheless, it went on the books as a very successful event. The goal had been to raise $20,000. They collected $30,000. Kendrick wrote an email to Fortenberry's staff afterward, "Wow."

Early hopes the trial would conclude tomorrow were optimistic. It now appears the earliest the jury will get the case for deliberation is Thursday afternoon.


MONDAY MORNING, MARCH 21

Fortenberry's team calls it a "shoddy" investigation. The US Attorney argued from the start the evidence clearly shows "concealment and deception."

By week's end, the California jury hearing evidence in the political corruption case of Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry will likely reach their conclusion.

They return to court this morning after a weekend recess.

Last week jurors heard how Gilbert Chagaury, a Nigerian-based industrialist admitted to secretly funneling tens-of-thousands of dollars in illegal campaign donations to Fortenberry's 2016 Congressional campaign.

Toufic Baaklini of In Defense of Christian appears in a televised speech from CSPAN
Toufic Baaklini, former president of In Defense of Christians, speaks during its annual meeting on CSPAN. (Image from CSPAN)

On Friday, the billionaire's go-between, Toufic Baaklini, described leaving an envelope stuffed with $30,000 in cash on the front seat of a car owned by the host of an L.A. fundraiser scheduled for the Nebraskan. Dr. Elias Ayoub, the party's host, handed smaller denominations to acquaintances who falsely claimed they were the source of the donation. In the parlance of election fraud, these conduits are known as straw donors.

Baaklini, who describes himself as a close friend of Jeff Fortenberry and his wife Celeste, returns to the witness stand Monday morning. He is the founder and former president of the advocacy organization In Defense of Christians (IDC). The group received much of its financial backing from Lebanese-born Chagaury.

While prosecutors will ask additional questions of Baaklini, he will also face cross-examination by Fortenberry's defense attorney. Questions remain about how much the Nebraska congressman knew about plans to obscure the source of the cash.

Much of the focus has been on a single piece of evidence. In 2018 the FBI recorded a phone call in which Ayoub seems to tell Fortenberry three times the money raised at the L.A. fundraiser originated from an illegal source. The informant also softens his language, saying it "probably" came from Chagaury. Fortenberry responds, "it's no problem."

Celeste Fortenberry (left) holds her husbands hand. Two of their daughters are on the right.
Cong. Jeff Fortenberry and his wife, Celeste, (Left) leave the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles after a day of testimony. (Photo by Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)

Fortenberry was unaware he was being recorded or that the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles turned Ayoub into a cooperative witness. The deal meant Ayoub would not do time in prison. Chagaury and Baaklini signed similar agreements in exchange for providing evidence.

However, as defense attorney Glenn Summer repeatedly noted while questioning the lead FBI investigator on the case, Fortenberry arguably never fully acknowledges affirmatively that he understands the contributions came to the conduits bankrolled by Chagaury.

Also helping Fortenberry's defense: last week, the lead FBI agent on the case conceded he made a mistake on his application for a search warrant. The error implied Fortenberry received donations right before introducing a congressional resolution condemning attacks on the Christian and Yazidi minorities in the Middle East. IDC supports the cause.

Fortenberry's attorney pointed out the congressman authored the resolution well before any money changed hands.

After court on Friday, Chad Kolton, a spokesperson for the Fortenberry campaign, blasted the government's "shoddy investigative work at the core of this case."

In a statement emailed to reporters covering the case, he wrote, "This was an unjust case that should never have been brought, and nothing the government has produced in its case so far proves otherwise."

An artist's rendering of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry listening to testimony at his trial
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry listening to testimony at his trial. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

FRIDAY, MARCH 18

Bill Kelly of Nebraska Public Media News has been covering the federal corruption trial of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska in Los Angeles. William Padmore of Nebraska Public Media News talked with him Friday on All Things Considered about the day's proceedings.

William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News: Previously, an FBI agent laid out why they were interested in the Nigerian businessman and his relationship with Congressman Fortenberry. How did this new witness fit into that whole picture?

Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News: The new witness that took the stand this (Friday) afternoon is Toufic Baaklini. He's the former head of an organization called In Defense of Christians. It's an advocacy organization fighting persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East. That's a cause that's been near and dear to Congressman Fortenberry over the years. Baaklini arranged the dispersement of illegal campaign donations from Gilbert Chagoury. They have both that they were well aware that these were improper and illegal donations. So part of the question we had all along was just how close was Baaklini with Congressman Fortenberry. Baaklini on the witness stand called him a very good friend. Fortenberry even brought him to the presidential state of the union speech one year and invited him to his home. Also they played an excerpt from a speech that Fortenberry gave to In Defense of Christians and Fortenberry told the audience that "no one says no" to Toufic Baaklini.

William Padmore: And the mechanics of the fundraiser are at the heart of the case?

Bill Kelly: That's exactly right. It turns out that this was as close to cloak and dagger that this trial had to offer. Baaklini had been made aware that Chagoury had an interest in conveying funds that he wanted to put in Congressman Fortenberry's campaign. Chagoury's son turned over $50,000 in cash to Toufic Baaklini. Thirty-thousand dollars of that was to be spent on the fundraiser. Baaklini left that money, $30,000 of it in cash on the front seat of the car of the host of the fundraiser, Elias Ayoub. He is a physician here in the Los Angeles area. He also has an interest in this cause, persecution of Christians. He was going to be gathering a group of people for this fundraiser. Baaklini made it clear that this money was designed to donate, to disperse, among these "straw donors" as they're called, and put it into the Fortenberry campaign. By being a witness for the government, Baaklini has signed a plea deal and paid a fine, but he did avoid jail, but he did admit his guilt.

William Padmore: Has Congressman Fortenberry's defense team been responding to any of this?

Bill Kelly: They will have the opportunity apparently on Monday. Mr. Baaklini concluded his testimony this (Friday) afternoon. There will probably be some very pointed questioning about both the mechanics of how this came about and just what Congressman Fortenberry knew about the scheme and whether he was fully aware.

William Padmore: What else did the jury hear today?

Bill Kelly: There were more excerpts of the secretly-recorded phone call between the congressional fundraiser, Mr. Ayoub, and Congressman Fortenberry that the FBI had collected. Mr. Ayoub made three references during that call to Chagoury funneling campaign donations to his party guests and then ultimately to the campaign. During this call it isn't entirely clear if there's an acknowledgement on Fortenberry's part that he really understood it. At least that's the defense's contention. y the same token, during that phone call, the congressman compliments Chagoury for his fine generosity and actually presses forward for a request for an additional fundraiser, perhaps something, and I'm quoting here, "something a little smaller, more intimate" that could be scheduled to collect more money down the road. That was during the testimony of FBI agent Todd Carter. He told the jury that that call indicated to him the congressman had knowledge that the donations were not on the level. That he felt the congressman showed a lack of concern over the revelation there were straw donors. In response, Congressman Fortenberry's defense attorney, Glen Summers asked the agent if the FBI could have actually warned Fortenberry that someone was trying to groom him, attempting to seek improper influence. Agent Carter said yes, they could have done that, but elected not to, and the defense used the word "victim." That Congressman Fortenberry might have actually been the victim of illegal donations.

THURSDAY, MARCH 17

The contents and interpretation of a single phone call to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry promise to play a key role in whether a jury of 12 Californians will convict the Nebraska politician of lying to FBI agents.

The prosecution played excerpts of the call in court Thursday.

The call occurred on June 4, 2018. Fortenberry answered on his cellphone at his home in Lincoln. On the other end of the line was Dr. Elias Ayoub, an Otolaryngologist based in suburban LA. The two men met while Fortenberry rounded up donations for his 2016 reelection campaign.

Ayoub received his medical degree from Creighton University in Nebraska.

A third man was listening. FBI Agent Todd Carter, a specialist in public corruption cases, activated a recording device when the call began.

It would be months before Fortenberry discovered the FBI had set up and recorded the call.

The Federal agents investigating illegal campaign contributions from overseas came up with a codename for the initiative: Operation Titans Grip.

Ayoub hosted the 2016 fundraiser at his home, raising 30 thousand dollars. Most of the individuals who attended wrote personal checks, but the money originated from Gilbert Chagaury, a Nigerian-based industrialist and billionaire. According to court documents detailing their plea agreements, Ayoub, Chagaury, and others who participated in the process later admitted knowing the scheme was illegal.

An artists rendering of prosecutor Jamil Bruxton presenting evidence at the trial of Cong Fortenberry
Prosecutor Jamil Bruxton with the U.S. Attorney's office, presenting evidence at trial. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

US Attorney Jamil Bruxton led off its case by questioning Agent Carter during a full day of testimony.

He explained Chagaury became the original target of their investigation, focusing on the industrialist’s pattern of seeking clout with political leaders in Washington.

For the benefit of a jury unschooled in political fundraising, prosecutor Jamile Bruxton walked the FBI agent through the details of methods used by foreign nationals to get money into the hands of politicians. Any contribution by someone who is not a US citizen violates federal law.

In the excerpts of the recording played in court, Youb refers to a third party, Toufic Baaklini, an associate of Chagaury’s and leader of an advocacy group supporting Christians living in the Middle East.

Court documents claim Chagaury gave Baaklini the money to divide into smaller amounts and arrange for individuals to write checks the night of the fundraiser.

During the call, Youb appears to make three references to Chagaury having surreptitiously supplied the guests at the candidate’s party. Agent Carter told jurors he felt the recording made it clear Fortenberry was aware of the illegal campaign contributions.

The recording became the foundation of the government’s claim Fortenberry lied by claiming he did not know about the scheme to set up straw donors. The jury is also scheduled to hear recordings of two interviews the FBI conducted with Fortenberry. He allegedly denies he knew the origin of the funds or failed to volunteer important information about the donations.

Two starkly different takes on the secretly recorded conversation appear to be the battle line drawn by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Glen Summers, a defense attorney for the Congressman, told the jury in opening statements this all grew from “one small mistake.” He inferred it is not clear from the recording that Fortenberry truly understood the implications of Ayoub's statements about Chagaury.

Summers also questioned whether the cell phone connection lacked clarity.

The FBI agent returns to the stand Friday morning.

An artist's rendering of defense attorney Glen Summers questioning a witness.
Defense attorney Glen Summers questioning a witness. (Sketch: Mona Shafer Edwards)

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16

In Wednesday's politically charged atmosphere, it proved to be a challenge to seat an unbiased jury in the trial of Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. As a result, the selection of a jury took longer than expected. Late Wednesday, a jury of 12 and three alternates was seated, and opening arguments are scheduled for this morning.

Fifty-five California residents had been randomly selected as candidates to serve on a jury hearing testimony in the Fortenberry trial.

After walking single file through the cavernous marble atrium of the Federal Building, they took seats in the largest courtroom in the building, widely spaced to allow for the COVID protocols that remain in place to keep the jury pool healthy.

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)

One by one, each member of the diverse group faced questioning by judge Stanley Blumenfeld. Many potential jurors expressed doubts they could set aside politics to reach a fair and impartial verdict.

Despite efforts to avoid party labels, some noted they distrusted Democrats others expressed doubts about Republicans. Skepticism about politicians, in general, was a recurring theme.

Sorting out political bias was a key issue for prosecution and defense. The opposing sides sought 12 jurors who could weigh the evidence fairly in a case that began with the Fortenberry campaign gifted with $30,000 in campaign donations from an African billionaire.


During a break in the proceedings, Nebraska Public Media reporter Bill Kelly called in from Los Angeles for an update. He spoke with Will Bauer.

WILL BAUER: This is a unique case because you have a section of the United States government, the Department of Justice, accusing an elected representative of that same government of a crime. Is that a tricky balance for the prosecutors bringing this case to trial?

An artist's rendering of Jeff Fortenberry (left) seated with his defense attorneys, as Judge Blumenfeld looks on.
Jeff Fortenberry (left) seated with his defense attorneys, as Judge Blumenfeld looks on. (Artist: Mona Shafer Edwards)

BILL KELLY: It is a challenge. This case has not attracted much national attention. The campaign donations collected amounted to just 30 thousand dollars. The stakes were pretty low.

Few in California would know the major players in the case. One is a not very well-known billionaire from Africa, Gilbert Chagaury, who allegedly attempted to curry favor with a politician from Nebraska.

Nonetheless, the Department of Justice still considered this an important cause. One of their best up-and-coming Assistant US Attorneys, Mack Jenkins, is leading the prosecution. Their belief is this case involves the integrity of the American political system.

There are still some hazards in how to best present the case to a jury. Almost none of these native Californians have likely heard of Nebraska's Congressman Fortenberry, but they also may have opinions about the political system.

I spoke with a former U.S. Attorney and now a law professor at Loyola University, Laura Levenson, about that tricky balance.

LEVENSON: There are some challenges in addressing the jury. And it depends on who your jury is. Sometimes you have jurors who would disbelieve the idea that people in public service would go ahead and do something illegal. But more recently, there's a great deal of cynicism about people in public service. And therefore, you have to be careful that what you're presenting to the jurors looks straightforward, that you're not doing it for political reasons, that you're just trying to enforce the law evenly with all politicians, including the ones who have been indicted.

BAUER: How do the defense attorneys representing Congressman Fortenberry counterattack when they may be addressing a somewhat cynical panel of jurors?

KELLY: One way is to question the motives and the reputation of those testifying. First and foremost is Gilbert Chaguary, the Lebanese-born industrialist who accepted a plea deal, admitting he was a foreign citizen attempting to influence the American political system by handing out campaign donations. Fortenberry's defense team will be able to question the integrity of Chagaury, and his associates who set up the fundraiser they conceded in their plea deals violated campaign finance laws.

Law professor Levenson pointed out that Fortenberry can also claim that he may have made an innocent mistake after running for Congress nine times.

LEVENSON: I think the strongest point for the defense is that Fortenberry really didn't understand exactly what all the rules are, that someone else usually handles the details for him that when he misspoke in his interview, it was nothing more than misspeaking, not an intentional effort to deceive. And that who would throw up their whole career and put that at risk for $30,000.


TUESDAY, MARCH 15

Jeff Fortenberry returned to the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles, California, Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, a jury will be seated in his federal corruption case.

He had been excused for several of the pretrial hearings so he could continue to be on hand for business in Washington, despite having to relinquish his committee assignments temporarily under the Congressional rules of his party.

Appearing a bit awkward and ill-at-ease sitting amongst the four attorneys on his defense team, he would occasionally glance back to the gallery where his wife Celeste and one of their five daughters sat. When Fortenberry spoke with Nebraska Public Media News, it was limited to small talk about travel since he declined to speak about the case until the verdict arrives.

The US Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles
The U.S. Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles where Jeff Fortenberry is standing trial. (Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media)

This hearing attempted to clear up lingering issues involving what the jury can be told and what evidence they can hear. Questioning of prospective jurors will be handled exclusively by Federal District Court Judge Stanley Blumenfeld. Attorneys were permitted to submit questions to be asked from the bench.

Judge Blumenfeld clarified how he would phrase questions about their ability to decide the case fairly.

Members of the pool will be asked if they have a general feeling, favorable or unfavorable, about politicians or if they have a bias for one political party or another that could affect their ability to reach a fair verdict. There will be no specific mention from the bench about Republicans or Democrats.

Almost from the start, the defense team assembled by Republican Congressman Fortenberry raised accusations of political bias by the U.S. Attorney pursuing the case.

Judge Blumenfeld made a series of rulings blocking the defense from raising those accusations. The attorneys, he repeated, must focus on allegations Fortenberry lied to FBI agents.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys reviewed concerns about the verdict ballot the jury will fill out once they have concluded Fortenberry’s guilt or innocence.

It’s one of the last things jurors will hear from the court before deliberations. The wording on the ballot could influence jurors as they determine whether Fortenberry knowingly lied and, if so, if he did it willfully in an attempt to influence and mislead the FBI agents. At the start of the probe, there were suspicions Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagaury attempted to influence members of Congress with campaign donations.

For a moment, a tense exchange between prosecutors, defense, and Judge Blumenfeld demonstrated what one of the attorneys described as “a very stressful case” for the participants.

The defense accused the U.S. Attorney’s office of not providing detailed information about audio recordings being entered as evidence for the jury to hear. One of the prosecutors bristled at the accusation, prompting a brief exchange across the courtroom. Judge Blumenfeld, clearly perturbed at the conduct, reminded both sides of the rules of the court mandate they only address the bench and never argue with one another.

At hearings and in his sometimes pointed notes, the judge appeared frustrated by late-arriving motions and what he perceived as a lack of preparation as the case headed towards trial.

The granite exterior of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles
The exterior of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles. (Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media)