Attorneys spar over Rep. Fortenberry’s statements to feds
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Attorneys sparred Tuesday over whether a jury should be allowed to hear statements that Nebraska U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry made to federal prosecutors who were investigating an illegal, $30,000 donation to his campaign from a foreign national.
Attorneys for the nine-term Republican asked a judge to bar the statements he made during an FBI interview from his upcoming trial, which is tentatively scheduled for next month. Prosecutors oppose the motion, and U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. didn’t immediately rule on the matter during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Fortenberry’s statements that he didn’t know the contribution was illegal are at the heart of prosecutors’ allegations that he intentionally misled federal agents and concealed information about the contribution, which he received during a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. Fortenberry has pleaded not guilty and faces a trial in the middle of his reelection bid.
Prosecutors allege that a cohost of the fundraiser told Fortenberry that the donations likely came from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent, but Fortenberry never filed an amended campaign report with the Federal Election Commission as required. They said he also made false and misleading statements to federal investigators during a March 23, 2019 interview at his home in Lincoln.
In a second interview in Washington in July 2019, prosecutors said Fortenberry again denied that he was aware of any illicit donation made during the 2016 fundraiser.
Defense lawyer Ryan Fraser argued Tuesday that prosecutors violated Fortenberry’s due-process rights by assuring his lawyer at the time, Trey Gowdy, that Fortenberry was not the target of their investigation but could become a prosecution witness. Fraser said Fortenberry wanted to help investigators, but his lawyer wouldn’t have allowed his client to talk to federal authorities if he had known Fortenberry was going to face charges.
“I think it’s shocking and disturbing that the government’s position today is that they can, in the context of seeking cooperation from a defendant, misrepresent a defendant’s status in an investigation,” Fraser said. “That is not the law and it cannot be the law. If it were the law, no one would go on cooperating... with the government.”
Prosecutors said they never promised that Fortenberry would avoid charges and argued that circumstances can change as they learn more about a case.
The government “is not conferring any benefit or extending any promise to the defendant” when prosecutors notify a person about their status in a criminal case, said Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Jamari Buxton. Fortenberry’s motion “is really grounded in this idea that the government made a promise.”
Fortenberry’s trial is set for Feb. 15, but could be delayed if the federal courts in California’s Central District extend their temporary suspension of jury trials that’s currently in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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