This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LOS ANGELES — With stunning swiftness, a California jury found U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry guilty Thursday of lying to federal investigators and trying to conceal illegal campaign donations.
The jury of eight women and four men took just over two hours to render a verdict on three felony charges faced by the 61-year-old Republican.
The congressman, who has represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, faces up to five years in prison on each of the counts.
U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld set June 28 for sentencing.
Promised an appeal
Fortenberry’s youngest daughter, Caroline, sobbed in the front row of the courtroom as the verdicts were read at the conclusion of a seven-day trial in the downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse.
“We always thought it was going to be hard to have a fair process here. We made our case.”
– U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry
Afterwards, Fortenberry promised an appeal and said he would review whether to continue his re-election campaign. He faces a formidable GOP challenger, State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, in the primary.
“We always thought it was going to be hard to have a fair process here,” Fortenberry told reporters, his family at his side, outside the courthouse. “We made our case.”
The lead prosecutor for the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, Mack Jenkins, said that “it was a good day for the criminal justice system.”
The verdict, he said, shows that even lawmakers have to follow the laws they make.
“We hold them to a higher standard,” Jenkins said.
The lightning fast verdict — which prompted one courthouse worker to make a “whoosh” sound — showed that the “jury paid attention to the evidence,” the prosecutor said.
The fact that the FBI had collected “significant recorded evidence” also helped, Jenkins said.
The most important piece of evidence was a 10-minute audio recording — done surreptitiously by the FBI — of a June 4, 2018, phone call the host of a Los Angeles fundraiser had with Fortenberry.
Key phone call recorded
In that call, Dr. Elias Ayoub told Fortenberry at least three times that the $30,000 he got during the 2016 fundraiser didn’t come from the attendees, but instead came in a brown paper bag from Toufic Baaklini. He was then president of In Defense of Christians, a group that counted Fortenberry as its biggest supporter of “the cause” of protecting religious minorities in the Middle East.
But Ayoub, a board member of the Christian group, also told the congressman that the $30,000 “probably” came from a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, who lived in Paris.
Jurors left the courthouse without commenting to a Nebraska Examiner reporter. During the trial, several of them scribbled notes every time the recording of the phone call was played in court, which occurred at least four times during the trial.
Fortenberry’s defense attorneys tried to discredit the recording, suggesting that the congressman might have been distracted and didn’t understand what was said, or that he had a bad cell phone connection at his Lincoln home, or that he didn’t have a good memory.
His wife, Celeste, testified earlier Thursday that he didn’t remember when they first met and that he was often cooking or cleaning while on fundraising calls and was on “autopilot” during such calls. But that clearly didn’t resonate with the jurors.
Would Fortenberry had avoided federal charges if he had immediately given away, or disgorged, the $30,000 shortly after the June 2018 call with Dr. Ayoub?
Jenkins, the prosecutor, said that was a difficult question to answer. But he added that Fortenberry’s failure to give away the money and amend his federal campaign spending report — which were both required — played into their case.
U.S. Rep. Lee Terry also received a donation funneled from Chagoury in 2014, but he gave away the money to charity and avoided any federal charges.
‘Lost his way’
Fortenberry was charged for failing to amend his federal campaign report, as well as for lying about his knowledge of the illicit donations in interviews with federal officials in March 2019 at his Lincoln home and July 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Only after the two interviews did Fortenberry give his $30,000 away. His defense team argued that was because he didn’t know until 2019 that the money was illegal; prosecutors maintain that it showed that he had “lost his way” and was trying to conceal the gifts.
Ironically, the main Lebanese natives snared in “Operation Titans Grip” — Chagoury and Baaklini — both escaped jail time by paying fines of $1.8 million and $90,000, respectively. They also agreed, months before Fortenberry was charged, to help the FBI. Ray LaHood, a former U.S. secretary of Transportation, paid a $50,000 fine for taking a no-pay-back loan from Chagoury.
Jenkins would not say whether any discussions about plea deals were made with Fortenberry’s, five-lawyer defense team.
Among the questions facing Fortenberry: Will he continue his re-election campaign while appealing the guilty verdicts? What kind of future does he have if he loses his seat in Congress?
Jim Crotty, who recently resigned as Fortenberry’s press aide in Washington, said it was going to be tough for his former boss to “overcome” the audio recordings made of the phone call, as well as two interviews the congressman gave to the FBI.
“This is going to be a loss for Nebraska,” said Crotty, who watched the final four days of the trial from the audience. “And I don’t think Nebraskans understand that.”
He also said he thought that Fortenberry could still win reelection.