A federal jury in Los Angeles on Thursday found Nebraska Rep.
guilty of lying to federal investigators in a bid to conceal illegal campaign contributions he received during a 2016 California fundraiser.
Jurors convicted the Republican congressman on three felony counts after about two hours of deliberations. U.S. District Judge
set a sentencing date of June 28.
Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Fortenberry learned that the Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire
illegally funneled $30,000 in contributions to his 2016 re-election campaign through straw donors at a Los Angeles fundraiser. But during interviews with federal agents, Mr. Fortenberry repeatedly denied knowledge of Mr. Chagoury’s involvement, prosecutors alleged.
Foreign nationals are barred from donating to candidates in U.S. elections, and it is illegal to disguise a donor’s identity through third-party contributions.
The proceedings, which opened last week, marked a rare instance of a sitting member of Congress standing trial. Mr. Fortenberry has been fighting the charges while also running for re-election.
Following the verdict Thursday, Mr. Fortenberry called into question the fairness of the proceeding. “This appeal starts immediately,” he said.
The leader of the House Republicans said Friday that Mr. Fortenberry should step down.
“When someone is convicted, it’s time to resign,” said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.). “He had his day in court. I think if he wants to appeal, he can do that as a private citizen.” He said he planned to talk to the congressman later in the day.
(D., Calif.) also said Mr. Fortenberry should resign.
During the trial, his defense team argued that the case was driven by overzealous prosecutors who sought a big takedown after making little headway in a broad probe of suspect contributions to U.S. political candidates.
Prosecutors cited a surreptitiously recorded phone call in which a co-host of the Los Angeles fundraiser told Mr. Fortenberry that some of the contributions from the event were probably funded by Mr. Chagoury. The co-host cooperated with federal investigators.
Mr. Fortenberry’s lawyers told jurors that the call was an unmemorable one for the congressman, who might have been distracted or unable to hear—and didn’t recall details of the conversation when interviewed later by federal authorities.
Mr. Chagoury entered into an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in 2019 to avoid prosecution, admitting that he gave money to individuals in the U.S. to be used to make contributions to four candidates.
“If we want to expect anyone to follow the law, ultimately it starts with the lawmakers,” Assistant U.S. Attorney
said after the verdict. “That’s even more paramount when the investigation itself goes to election integrity.”
Mr. Fortenberry was a member of the House Appropriations Committee and the top Republican on the agriculture subcommittee, but stepped down from those positions after his indictment. House GOP rules state that a member who is indicted on a felony charge that could result in two or more years of possible jail time must resign from committee posts.
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Appeared in the March 25, 2022, print edition as ‘Rep. Fortenberry Guilty In Campaign Probe.’