Fortenberry to resign following conviction on charges tied to illegal contribution
Nebraska Republican already faced challenger in May primary
Bowing to pressure from Republican leaders following his criminal conviction for lying to authorities about illegal campaign contributions, Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said Saturday he will resign next week.
"When I first ran for Congress, I said that I would focus on our national security, economic security and family security," Fortenberry said in an email to supporters. "It is my dearest hope that I have made a contribution to the betterment of America, and the well being of our great state of Nebraska.
"Due to the difficulties of my current circumstances, I can no longer serve you effectively. I will resign from Congress shortly," he said.
Attached to the announcement was a letter to House colleagues saying he would resign effective March 31. It quoted a poem he said was "on the wall of Mother Teresa's children's home in Calcutta."
"When you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight," it said in part. "Build anyway."
The announcement was a crushing end to Fortenberry’s nine-term career in Congress, where he was known as a soft-spoken foreign policy specialist and top appropriator for agriculture, which he said was a linchpin to stability and prosperity both domestically and abroad.
Fortenberry had vowed to appeal his conviction, the first of a sitting House member since Ohio Rep. James Traficant was convicted of accepting bribes in 2002.
But national Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said he should resign following his conviction Thursday on three counts.
“I think he had his day in court,” McCarthy told reporters Friday morning in Florida, where the House GOP was meeting to plan strategy ahead of the midterm elections, when the party needs to flip a net five seats to take the majority. “I think when someone’s convicted, it’s time to resign.”
Prominent Republicans in Nebraska had already lined up behind his challenger in the May primary, state Sen. Mike Flood. Democrats are also hoping Fortenberry’s conviction could make the district, which Fortenberry won by 22 percentage points in 2020, more competitive. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks is one of two candidates seeking the party’s nomination.
Brooks said in a statement Friday that she was running to change “a toxic political culture” represented by all the Republicans in the primary. “Yesterday’s conviction of Congressman Fortenberry is a wakeup call,” she said. “And I am here to answer the call.”
State Democratic Chairwoman Jane Kleeb, noting that two state officials had also resigned recently amid unrelated scandals, said the special election would be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” that could help Democrats set the tone for the 2022 midterms.
“This is what happens when you have one-party grip in the state, it leads to corruption,” she said.
In his 2020 bid for reelection, then-President Donald Trump won Fortenberry’s Lincoln-area 1st District by 11 points. The November race for the seat is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
Under state law, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, is required to hold a special election within 90 days.
There are currently three vacancies in the House, all in districts previously held by Republicans following the deaths of Reps. Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota and Don Young of Alaska and the resignation of Rep. Devin Nunes of California. A special primary will be on April 5 for a replacement for Nunes, who left in January to become CEO of the Trump Media & Technology Group.
Caught in wider probe
Fortenberry was found guilty Thursday by a federal jury in Los Angeles on two counts of making false statements to federal investigators and one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts related to $30,000 in illegal contributions made to his 2016 campaign. He faces up to five years in federal prison on each count when he is sentenced June 28 by U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr.
Fortenberry stepped aside from his assignment on the Appropriations Committee after being indicted in October, in accordance with House Republican Conference rules. Until his legal troubles, he was the top Republican on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
The inquiry into Fortenberry, 61, began as a wider investigation into Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire who illegally funneled foreign money into U.S. political campaigns. Foreign nationals are prohibited by law from making campaign donations to a federal candidate.
Chagoury arranged to distribute $30,000 to Fortenberry’s campaign through conduits in January 2016, according to the indictment. Eventually, Dr. Elias Ayoub, using money that originated from Chagoury, distributed it to his friends and family at a 2016 fundraiser he hosted at his Los Angeles home so they could write checks to Fortenberry’s reelection campaign, The Associated Press reported.
Ayoub cooperated with federal investigators and took part in recorded phone calls with Fortenberry while authorities were listening. Fortenberry 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.
Fortenberry fought the charges, saying in a video posted to YouTube hours before his indictment was announced that he told authorities “what I knew and what I understood.”
Current and former colleagues in the House testified at Fortenberry’s trial.
Rep. Anna G Eshoo, D-Calif., said she and Fortenberry worked together on protecting religious minorities in the Middle East, according to a courtroom account from the Omaha World-Herald.
“I think he brings honor to what he does," Eshoo said, according to the newspaper. "He’s faith-filled. He’s honest. His word is always good — I can’t say that about all members of Congress.”
Former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who represented Fortenberry for a portion of the investigation, also testified at the trial. Gowdy said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins, the lead prosecutor, told him that Fortenberry should not return the improper campaign money to the donors because it could alert them to the investigation, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Fortenberry was born and raised in Baton Rouge, La. He was interested in politics and international affairs from a young age, and as a fifth-grader, wrote a letter to Richard Nixon about the president’s 1972 trip to China.
At 17, Fortenberry was a page to a Democratic state senator in Louisiana. He switched parties in 1982, citing the influence of President Ronald Reagan.
As a college student, Fortenberry traveled in Egypt and immersed himself in Arab history, culture and religion. After earning a master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University, he interned for the Agriculture Department and worked on a Senate subcommittee. He later enrolled at Franciscan University in Ohio, earning a master’s degree in theology, which he has called essential to his transition to politics.
Uneasy about Trump
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.
He was not an initial Trump supporter, backing former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in the run-up to the 2016 presidential primaries. According to the Omaha World-Herald, there was some uneasiness in Fortenberry’s own family about Trump being the Republican nominee.
After hearing concerns about Trump’s treatment of women from his 17-year-old daughter, Fortenberry reached out to Trump's running mate, former Rep. Mike Pence, an old friend of his. He said his intent was to let the Trump team know that perhaps the campaign needed to show additional sensitivity towards women.
During 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, according to CQ Vote Watch.
Fortenberry told the American Conservative in May 2012 that his economic background is important for understanding how policy ticks but it’s more important to comprehend the impact of policymaking on people.
“I kept asking not just ‘how’ but ‘why,’” he said.
Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.