Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was sentenced Tuesday to two years’ probation for lying to the FBI and concealing information during an investigation into his campaign’s receipt of tens of thousands of dollars in illegal foreign contributions, a decision that allows him to avoid any time in prison.
The sentencing decision by U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. of the Central District of California went against the prosecution’s request. Prosecutors asked for Fortenberry to serve six months in federal prison. Blumenfeld also said Fortenberry must complete 320 hours of community service and pay a $25,000 fine — in addition to a mandatory special assessment fee of $300.
While Blumenfeld acknowledged Fortenberry “decided to respond with dishonesty rather than honesty” by lying to federal investigators, the judge noted the crime was “out of character” for Fortenberry. Blumenfeld mentioned letters he read attesting to Fortenberry’s character from his wife and children and from Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif.
Mack Jenkins, a U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, told the judge “a custodial sentence is necessary” for the integrity of the justice system and to potentially deter other public officials from engaging in similar crimes.
Fortenberry began his congressional career in 2005 and resigned on March 31, shortly after he was convicted by a federal jury in California on one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. He represented the 1st District in Nebraska, which includes Lincoln.
Federal Election Campaign Act violations
His legal troubles began when federal agents asked about his ties to a wealthy foreign national who illegally funneled money to U.S. political candidates.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 2015 were investigating violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act, bribery and foreign influence efforts stemming from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire of Lebanese descent who illegally distributed foreign money to Americans running for federal office to further his own interests. It is illegal for a U.S. candidate for federal office to knowingly accept campaign contributions from foreign nationals, like Chagoury, and from conduits. This law is in place to guard against foreign influence in U.S. elections. Foreign nationals are prohibited from making campaign contributions to U.S. elected officials.
Chagoury’s scheme to influence American elections was assisted by Toufic Baaklini and Elias Ayoub, three people with whom Fortenberry was connected through In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit organization to which Chagoury provided significant financial support.
In 2016, Chagoury arranged to funnel $30,000 of his money to Fortenberry’s reelection campaign through Baaklini. Baaklini planned to give the money in cash to Ayoub to then provide that money in campaign donations through conduits at a Los Angeles fundraiser that Ayoub co-hosted. More than $30,000 was given to Fortenberry’s campaign by eight conduits who were reimbursed with Chagoury’s money. Fortenberry’s quarterly Federal Election Commission report regarding that fundraiser did not disclose that Chagoury or Baaklini contributed to his campaign.
The government said Fortenberry willfully lied, made misleading statements and intentionally omitted information in an interview conducted by an FBI special agent and an IRS special agent at his home in Lincoln in March 2019. Fortenberry subsequently sought out a second interview, conducted in D.C. in July 2019, in which he made more false and misleading statements during an interview run by U.S. attorneys and the FBI. Former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., was there as Fortenberry’s counsel at the time.
Fortenberry also did not amend his FEC report and chose to keep the illegal contributions, Jenkins, the U.S. attorney, wrote in the government’s sentencing memorandum.
“[The] defendant’s continued efforts to minimize his own criminal conduct and to shift the blame by pointing the finger at a multitude of other factors presents a greater risk of recidivism as compared to someone who has fully accepted responsibility,” Jenkins wrote.
Throughout the legal process, Fortenberry criticized the investigation and the prosecution as politically motivated, and his spokesperson referred to them as “California prosecutors.” The former congressman declined to address the judge on Tuesday.
Fortenberry received less than Jenkins asked for in the sentencing memorandum: six months in federal prison; two years of supervised release; a $30,000 fine; 150 hours of community service; and a special assessment of $300.
In the sentencing memorandum, Jenkins argued that Fortenberry’s criminal conduct has fueled distrust in federal elected officials and he was motivated to break the law by “plain, selfish desire to cling to his status as a powerful federal official.” When he was confronted with the evidence of his guilt, Fortenberry “continuously chose hostile defiance and blame,” Jenkins wrote.
Two years of probation is significantly less than the statutory maximum Fortenberry could have received, which is five years in federal prison for each count, amounting to a total of 15 years.
“For his pattern of choosing hubris over honesty and for the trampled public trust that defendant leaves in his wake, a meaningful term of imprisonment is appropriate and necessary,” Jenkins wrote.
John Littrell, a lawyer for Fortenberry, said any prison time for the former lawmaker is “unwarranted” and instead asked for one year of probation and no fine. Littrell said the conviction has had a devastating impact on Fortenberry, a man who once was a “revered public servant” and now cannot vote or possess a gun. Further, he notes that Fortenberry’s federal pension that he relies on for retirement is in “jeopardy.”
Two state senators in Nebraska — Mike Flood, a Republican, and Patty Pansing Brooks, a Democrat — are competing in a special election Tuesday to decide who will fill the seat Fortenberry vacated.
Other congressional convictions
Since 2019, two other members of Congress have been convicted of felonies and resigned from office.
Chris Collins, R-N.Y., pleaded guilty to participating in an insider trading scheme and lying to the FBI. Collins was sentenced to two years and two months in federal prison but served only a fraction of that time because he was pardoned by former President Donald Trump.
Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pleaded guilty to misusing more than $150,000 in campaign funds for personal use. Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in federal prison but never served any time because Trump also pardoned him.