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Appeals court tosses convictions of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry

Appellate panel says Nebraska Republican should not have been tried in California

The 2022 conviction of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was overturned by a federal appeals court that ruled he should not have been tried in California on charges of lying to investigators in a probe into illegal foreign campaign contributions.
The 2022 conviction of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was overturned by a federal appeals court that ruled he should not have been tried in California on charges of lying to investigators in a probe into illegal foreign campaign contributions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out the 2022 conviction of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., ruling that federal prosecutors brought the charges in the wrong location.

The opinion from a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said that prosecutors would be able to retry Fortenberry “if at all, in a proper venue.”

Fortenberry resigned from Congress shortly after a federal jury in the Central District of California convicted him on one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

Those California-based agents were investigating allegations of illegal campaign contributions made in California to Fortenberry’s 2016 reelection campaign by a foreign national through conduit donors, the 9th Circuit decision states.

Although Fortenberry was not charged with violating federal election laws, a Los Angeles-based jury found that he had made false statements to investigators in a March 2019 interview in Nebraska and a July 2019 interview in the District of Columbia.

The 9th Circuit ruled that the Constitution plainly requires that a criminal defendant be tried in the place where the criminal conduct occurred, and it is not enough to say the false statements made in Nebraska and D.C. had an effect on a federal investigation in California.

“Fortenberry’s trial took place in a state where no charged crime was committed, and before a jury drawn from the vicinage of the federal agencies that investigated the defendant,” the ruling concludes. “The Constitution does not permit this.”

A federal judge in California in 2022 sentenced Fortenberry to two years of probation.

Throughout the legal process, Fortenberry had criticized the investigation and the prosecution as politically motivated, and his spokesperson referred to them as “California prosecutors.”

Fortenberry, in a written statement provided through an attorney Tuesday, said he was “gratified” by the decision.

“Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has stood by us and supported us with their kindness and friendship,” Fortenberry said.

The federal investigators interviewed Fortenberry as part of a wider inquiry into Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who illegally funneled foreign money into U.S. political campaigns. It is illegal for foreign nationals, such as Chagoury, to make campaign donations to a candidate for federal office in the U.S.

The Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

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