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Convicted Rep. Fortenberry should resign from Congress, McCarthy says

Nebraska Republican was found guilty of lying to federal authorities about illegal campaign contributions

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., above, should leave Congress after being convicted on multiple felony counts.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., above, should leave Congress after being convicted on multiple felony counts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Friday that Rep. Jeff Fortenberry should resign from Congress after Fortenberry was convicted on three felony counts.

“I want to discuss with him today. I think he had his day in court. I think if he wants to appeal he could go do that as a private citizen. But I think out of respect you can let me talk to him today, but I think when someone’s convicted, it’s time to resign,” McCarthy said a day after Fortenberry’s conviction came down.

Chad Kolton, a spokesperson for Fortenberry’s campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

About an hour after McCarthy spoke, Speaker Nancy Pelosi also called for the convicted lawmaker to leave Congress.

“Congressman Fortenberry’s conviction represents a breach of the public trust and confidence in his ability to serve. No one is above the law,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “Congressman Fortenberry must resign from the House.”

On Thursday, a federal jury in Los Angeles found Fortenberry, R-Neb., guilty on two counts of making false statements to federal investigators and one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts. Fortenberry faces up to five years in federal prison for each count, a maximum of 15 years.

Shortly after the verdict was handed down on Thursday, Fortenberry said he would appeal the conviction. At a press conference on Friday during a House GOP retreat in Florida, McCarthy said Fortenberry should pursue his appeal as a “private citizen,” meaning not as a member of Congress.

Fortenberry’s sentencing is scheduled for June 28 before U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr.

Fortenberry, 61, has been in Congress since 2005 and sits on the Appropriations Committee, though he stepped off his panel assignments due to his legal troubles. He had been the top Republican on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Since he took office in 2005, Fortenberry has voted with his fellow Republicans 89 percent of the time on votes where the two parties were divided. That’s lower than the average party unity score of 93 percent for that period, according to CQ Vote Watch. During President Donald Trump’s four-year term, Fortenberry voted to support the administration’s position on bills 92 percent of the time, compared with a GOP average of 92.1 percent.

After coasting to reelection since he first won his seat in 2004, Fortenberry faces a competitive primary in May, with a number of Nebraska’s prominent Republicans lining up behind state Sen. Mike Flood.

Democrats have also seen the district as a potential target in the right circumstances. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Former President Donald Trump carried Fortenberry’s Lincoln-area 1st District by 11 points. The November race is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

The inquiry into Fortenberry began as a wide-ranging investigation into illegal campaign contributions to U.S. political campaigns made by Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire. It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate in U.S. federal elections.

Chagoury illegally funneled $30,000 through intermediaries to Fortenberry’s campaign. The money was distributed to various individuals at a 2016 fundraiser hosted by Dr. Elias Ayoub at his L.A. home. Ayoub gave the money to friends and family so they could cut checks to Fortenberry’s campaign.

Ayoub began cooperating with investigators and participated in recorded phone calls with Fortemnberry about the contributions. The lawmaker made false statements during a March 23, 2019, interview run by the FBI and IRS at his home in Lincoln, Neb., and at a July 18, 2019, interview conducted by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.

Herb Jackson and Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.

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