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Fortenberry sentenced to probation for lying to federal agents

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Tuesday morning, a judge sentenced the 61-year-old former congressman to two years of probation on convictions that he lied to federal agents about dirty money.

LOS ANGELES — Flanked by his wife, trailed by a priest, a former staffer and five of his attorneys, Jeff Fortenberry descended a hill outside the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. on Tuesday.

It was a much different place, and a much different vibe, than just three months ago, when Fortenberry defiantly strode into the courthouse to challenge charges that he lied to federal agents investigating the injection of foreign money into his campaign.

Election 2022 Nebraska

Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and wife Celeste talk to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

For one, the courthouse — with its courtyard nouveau design, complete with gleaming glass and babbling brook water features — had transformed into a fortress. An imposing green fence — akin to those surrounding a construction zone or a jail's exercise area — lined its perimeter, erected to keep abortion rights protesters out and courtgoers in.

For another, Fortenberry entered through the makeshift gate a convicted felon. Three times over. He faced up to five years of prison or five years of probation on each count.

Andy Braner, Fortenberry’s former chief of staff, kept his chin lowered as he followed his one-time boss through metal detectors. Asked how he was doing, Braner said: “It’s the worst. It doesn’t get any worse.”

As it turns out, it could have.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld declined to give Fortenberry prison time.

Instead, Blumenfeld gave the 61-year-old former congressman from Lincoln two years of probation, a $25,000 fine and 320 hours of community service. And a bit of a tongue lashing.

“What is clear is that Mr. Fortenberry turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the information he was clearly provided,” Blumenfeld said. “The evidence clearly supports the finding by the jury that Mr. Fortenberry was not blind and he was not deaf. … He chose the wrong path. He decided to respond with dishonesty rather than honesty. And lying, especially in this context, is certainly a serious matter.”

Prosecutor Mack Jenkins, an assistant U.S. attorney, said it’s so serious that it deserved six months in prison.

Jenkins urged the judge to reconsider the probation sentence, noting that Fortenberry lied to federal agents about his relationship with Dr. Eli Ayoub, a former Creighton doctor who held a dirty fundraiser for Fortenberry in an L.A. suburb in February 2016. Then, he lied again when Jenkins himself met with Fortenberry and an attorney. During that interview, Fortenberry asserted that he knew Federal Elections Commission regulations backward and forward — and denied that Ayoub had ever told him that the money he received was cash funneled through a Nigerian billionaire.

Without prison, Jenkins told the judge, other elected officials won’t be deterred.

“Fortenberry had choice after choice after choice to live up to his oath,” Jenkins said. “Each time, he chose the wrong way.”

Blumenfeld said he appreciated the need for deterrence. However, an analysis of the past three years showed that more than 80% of federal defendants of the same age and with the same education as Fortenberry have received probation for the same class of crimes, the defense said.

And the judge argued: “I find it difficult to believe that anyone fully familiar with the facts of this case will think that it’s worth taking the risk that Mr. Fortenberry took here.”

Blumenfeld said he also had to consider Fortenberry’s conduct against his overall character. Fortenberry’s defense team submitted 64 letters on his behalf. Of them, Blumenfeld said he found the letters from Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, and his five daughters particularly compelling.

“By all accounts, one thing that every witness impressed upon … is that he is a person of good, honest, moral character,” Blumenfeld said. “Even (a Democratic congresswoman) testified that Fortenberry is a man whose word can be counted upon and is generally trusted in the halls of a place where trust is not always something that can be relied upon.

“This does not mean that the path he took was appropriate or that the court is in any way condoning it. It simply is measuring the conduct in the context of his history and his characteristics.”

Even without prison, it was an incredible fall from grace for Fortenberry, a 17-year Republican representative whom a staffer once described as America’s “last great statesman.”

Jeff Fortenberry mug sentencing

Fortenberry

He had faced up to 15 years in prison after a jury swiftly convicted him in March of two counts of lying and one count of concealing the source of illegal campaign donations. A Nigerian billionaire had steered $30,000 in cash to Fortenberry’s campaign at a fundraiser in suburban Los Angeles. It is illegal for foreigners to donate to U.S. politicians.

Despite several warnings that the money was dirty, Fortenberry didn’t disgorge it from his campaign until 40 months later.

Fortenberry declined to address the judge in court Tuesday but asked to address him afterward. Observers couldn’t hear what Fortenberry said, but Blumenfeld told the courtroom that Fortenberry thanked him for reading the 64 letters submitted in support.

“All I wanted to do was serve my country,” Fortenberry said, according to the judge.

Post-sentencing, Fortenberry walked outside holding his wife’s hand. He called the whole ordeal, including his resignation from Congress, “traumatic.” Asked if he had slept the night before, Fortenberry chuckled and searched for his words.

“We slept like a baby,” Celeste Fortenberry chimed in. “When you have a clean conscience, you sleep well.”

Randall Adkins, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor, said Tuesday was historic. In Nebraska’s 155-year history, Fortenberry is the only federally elected official to be convicted of a felony, let alone three of them.

The only similar case in state history was the 1985 perjury conviction of a Nebraska attorney general who tried to cover up his dealings with an insolvent bank.

“His legacy is one of scandal,” Adkins said of Fortenberry. “The thing I think that’s dangerous about that is this: We’re in a time where trust in elected officials is at an all-time low. If that’s how we remember a member of Congress, it doesn’t bode well for our future.”

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Fortenberry vowed to appeal, though overturning a jury verdict is the longest of long shots, especially in federal court.

The trial was the first of a sitting congressman since Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of bribery and other felony charges in 2002.

Both the sentencing hearing and eve-of-trial briefs revealed some new nuggets about U.S. v. Fortenberry:

* Countering the defense’s image that Fortenberry is circling the drain financially, the U.S. Probation Office indicated that Fortenberry has a net worth in the neighborhood of $1.1 million. And prosecutors noted that, even post-conviction, Fortenberry is now in a job making $144,000 a year. The report didn’t specify the job, though Fortenberry worked for Sandhills Publishing in Lincoln before his congressional career.

* It is not clear whether Fortenberry’s felony conviction has cost him his federal pension. The defense wrote that he might end up losing it, but prosecutors say the government has given no indication that it has stripped him of it.

* Fortenberry ignored even more warning signs than originally reported. Followers of the case already knew that Fortenberry didn’t act on several suggestions, even his own instincts, that something was amiss with the $30,000 in donations he received at that Los Angeles fundraiser in February 2016. Add this to the picture: In 2017, a year after the fundraiser, Fortenberry texted Toufic Baaklini, the man who helped set up the fundraiser.

Baaklini responded curtly that he had hired a criminal defense attorney and Fortenberry ought to hire one, too. And then the four of them could get together and talk about options. Despite that dire text, Fortenberry didn’t seek out an attorney — or a meeting with Baaklini — to find out what was up. Instead, the congressman sought to set up another fundraiser.

* Fortenberry could have avoided charges if he had purged the dirty money. An FBI agent testified that they kept checking to see if Fortenberry had cleansed his campaign war chest. Prosecutors noted in their sentencing brief that Fortenberry could have avoided charges had he gotten rid of the money. In the end, 40 months passed before he finally got did so. By then, he had told too many lies and given the feds too many misdirections.

Adkins, the political scientist and associate dean at UNO, said disgraced politicians seem to fall into three categories: those who are corrupt to begin with, those who make a mistake and admit it and those who “simply can’t admit they do anything wrong.”

Adkins said Fortenberry falls into that last camp, along with former President Donald Trump. How else to explain why Fortenberry wouldn’t just get rid of the $30,000, especially when he had a campaign war chest of about $2 million?

“He couldn’t admit he was wrong,” Adkins said. “He still hasn’t.”

Adkins said there are a few reasons why denial works for Trump but not Fortenberry:

* Fortenberry is not as skilled an orator as Trump.

* Nebraska doesn’t have a history of embracing or forgiving personal, moral wrongdoing in local leaders. No matter what some may think about their politics, Adkins said, today’s Nebraska Republicans typically quickly dispatch with wrongdoers. As proof, Adkins pointed to Gov. Pete Ricketts railing against a man Trump supported, Charles Herbster, in the governor’s race this year.

Similarly, Ricketts dispatched with Fortenberry after his case first emerged. The governor threw his support behind state Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who on Tuesday took on state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in a special election to complete the remainder of Fortenberry's term.

* Lies, even misdirections, don’t fly with federal agents, and they don’t fly in court.

That is perhaps the most important factor in Fortenberry’s fall. Fortenberry dug himself deeper and deeper with his denials and the bumbled way he handled his interviews with federal agents.

Fortenberry became incensed that FBI agents had shown up at his Lincoln house unannounced in March 2019. He pulled rank, calling then-Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister to make sure the federal agents were who they said they were.

He then compounded the mistake. Any lawyer will tell you to not talk to police without an attorney present, except in cases where you’re a victim.

Instead of calling an attorney, Fortenberry insisted that the Lincoln police officers stay at his home during the interview. And then he proceeded to deny knowing the man in the photo that FBI agent Todd Carter held up for him: Ayoub, the former Creighton doctor now practicing in Los Angeles.

Ayoub had held a fundraiser for Fortenberry at a suburban L.A. home in February 2016. People at the dinner had raised $36,000 — and Fortenberry called it a rousing success.

While Fortenberry initially was oblivious to it, the fundraiser followed the A, B and C of a scandal: Ayoub had taken a bag of cash provided by Baaklini, the founder of In Defense of Christians, a group set up to protect Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. That bag of cash arrived in L.A. via the son of Gilbert Chagoury — a billionaire linked to one of the most corrupt regimes in Nigerian history.

Fortenberry sensed something was wrong, noting to his fundraising consultant that the bulk of the checks came from people with the same last name. He didn’t act on that instinct.

His Republican colleagues did. Chagoury also had attempted to funnel money to the campaigns of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska and current California congressman Darrell Issa. Upon learning the donations were from a foreigner, those three disgorged the money from their campaign coffers by donating it to charity.

Fortenberry took more than three years — and two FBI interviews — to do so.

That led prosecutors and FBI to wonder: Was Fortenberry just oblivious? Or was there something more sinister? Did he want the donations as validation for his help in a cause that he had long been concerned with?

And, did he plan to do it again?

In 2018, Fortenberry called Ayoub about a second fundraiser. During that phone call, Ayoub told him they could do it, but it wouldn’t be as lucrative because the “cash” from the first fundraiser “probably” came from Chagoury.

From there, FBI agents kept checking Fortenberry’s campaign forms to see if he had disgorged the money. He hadn’t.

On the eve of sentencing, prosecutors essentially acknowledged in a 30-page indictment that Fortenberry could have avoided all of this, including maybe even charges, if he had simply “come clean.”

They came to think that Fortenberry not only knew the money was questionable, but also that he embraced it as validation for his work with In Defense of Christians.

Fortenberry had helped to secure passage of a resolution of condemnation of IS for ”genocide” in the Middle East — which Baaklini described as an important milestone for the movement to protect religious minorities. Photos showed Fortenberry beaming beside Baaklini and Anna Eshoo, a California Democratic congresswoman, after being presented with plaques from In Defense of Christians.

He was a featured speaker at the group's fundraising dinners, once asking for a show of hands for anyone who had been able to say “no” to Baaklini. Seeing none, he joked that the only person who could say no to Baaklini was Baaklini’s wife.

Fortenberry was one of the few congressional members who had constituents directly affected by persecution in the Middle East.

Lincoln is home to one of the largest resettlements of Yazidis, a religious sect from Iraq. Over the past decade, IS members have abused the Yazidis, raping, torturing and killing them. Many of them settled in Lincoln and other U.S. cities.

Fortenberry attended one of their first rallies in Lincoln, where he met a bright teenager who spoke little English. Despite her language limitations, Fortenberry hired the young woman as an intern in his Lincoln office.

She said she was forever grateful for Fortenberry’s involvement in what advocates referred to as “the cause.”

The cause had perks, causing prosecutors to look sideways at Fortenberry’s advocacy. He twice had dinner with the billionaire Chagoury — once in Washington and once in Paris. He constantly asked Baaklini to pass along fond greetings to “Gilbert.”

The weekend of the dirty fundraiser, the Lebanese Catholic community in L.A. bestowed an award on Fortenberry that gave him lifetime permission to, of all things, ride a horse into any Lebanese Catholic church. Again, Fortenberry could be seen beaming in pictures.

Prosecutors pointed to Fortenberry’s “lack of remorse and accountability.” With “his public comments and public relations strategy to make himself the purported martyr of a political hit job by ‘California prosecutors’ and a biased FBI agent, it remains to be seen what lessons defendant has taken from his prosecution and convictions,” Jenkins wrote.

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Fortenberry’s defense primarily focused on character testimony — including Eshoo’s assertion that Fortenberry is a “man of integrity … and a person devoid of arrogance.”

Supporters said Fortenberry’s forte was in his efforts to protect human dignity. Hence his bill to provide funding for support for those afflicted with ALS. Hence his desire to help religious minorities who have been oppressed in the Middle East, including the Yazidis.

One of those refugees testified at trial that Fortenberry listened to them — and fought for them.

“The conviction in this case devastatingly impacted Mr. Fortenberry’s life,” Fortenberry attorney John Littrell said. “Once a public servant, Mr. Fortenberry resigned from Congress. Stripped of the rights to vote and possess a firearm, Mr. Fortenberry cannot even participate in our democracy.”

Outside court after sentencing, Fortenberry maintained his innocence and said his appeals will ensue.

Asked if he had been worried that he was going to prison, Fortenberry paused.

“Well, you don’t know the outcomes here,” Fortenberry said. “We’re in a very strange place here, aren’t we?”

He put his palms up and motioned toward the bustling city.

“It’s not Nebraska.”

When he reaches Nebraska, the former congressman will check in with the probation office to begin serving his two years.

With that, Fortenberry, his wife and his lead attorney walked the marble steps away from the courthouse. They exited the same green gate he had entered Tuesday morning.

In a sense, free. Except for the felonies. Except for the legacy.

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