Judge reverses Fortenberry conviction
LOS ANGELES (AP) — An appellate court on Tuesday reversed a 2022 federal conviction against former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, ruling that he should not have been tried in Los Angeles.
Fortenberry was convicted in March 2022 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. He resigned his seat days later following pressure from congressional leaders and Nebraska’s GOP governor.
In its Tuesday ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote that the trial venue of Los Angeles was improper because Fortenberry made the false statements during interviews with federal agents at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, and in his lawyer’s office in Washington.
“Fortenberry’s convictions are reversed so that he may be retried, if at all, in a proper venue,” the decision said.
Patricia Hartman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, declined to comment on the ruling’s potential impact for federal prosecutors in Washington.
“We cannot comment on matters where we don’t have charges filed,” she said in an email Tuesday.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nebraska did not immediately return a phone message.
A federal jury in Los Angeles found the nine-term Republican guilty of concealing information and two counts of making false statements to authorities. He vowed to appeal from the courthouse steps.
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.
At trial, prosecutors presented recorded phone conversations in which Fortenberry was repeatedly warned that the contributions came from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. The donations were funneled through three strawmen at the 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.
The case stemmed from an FBI investigation into $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions to four campaigns from Chagoury, who lived in Paris at the time. Chagoury admitted to the crime in 2019 and agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine.
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 and his wife, Celeste Fortenberry, praised the court’s decision.
“We are gratified by the Ninth Circuit’s decision,” Jeff Fortenberry said in a statement. “Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has stood by us and supported us with their kindness and friendship.”
Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles did not have an immediate comment.