LOS ANGELES—The trial of Nebraska Rep.
opened Thursday as jurors began considering charges that the Republican congressman lied to federal investigators in a bid to conceal illegal campaign contributions he received during a 2016 California fundraiser.
Prosecutors allege Mr. Fortenberry, who has served in Congress since 2005, later learned that Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire
illegally funneled $30,000 in contributions to his reelection campaign through straw donors at the fundraiser. But during interviews with federal agents investigating alleged contributions by Mr. Chagoury to several U.S. political candidates, Mr. Fortenberry repeatedly denied knowledge of Mr. Chagoury’s involvement, prosecutors alleged.
“This is a case about choices, a series of choices that the defendant made that led him down an illegal path of lies and deception,” Assistant United States Attorney
J. Jamari Buxton
told jurors Thursday during opening statements at a Los Angeles federal courthouse.
Mr. Buxton alleged that Mr. Fortenberry had continued to deceive investigators, despite multiple “off-ramps” and opportunities to disclose the truth, and that he did so because “it benefited him, it benefited his friends and it preserved his ability to get additional money.”
Under federal election law, foreign nationals are barred from making campaign contributions and donors cannot disguise their identity by contributing in another person’s name.
Mr. Fortenberry is fighting the federal charges while also running for reelection. Wearing a green tie on St. Patrick’s Day, he showed little emotion in the courtroom as his defense team told jurors that the case was driven by overzealous, ambitious investigators who had turned up little in a broad probe of suspect contributions to U.S. political candidates.
“The investigation started to turn into a nothing burger,”
a lawyer for Mr. Fortenberry, said, adding that investigators saw Mr. Fortenberry’s involvement as the “opportunity for a big takedown.”
As part of their case, prosecutors have cited a surreptitiously recorded phone call in which a co-host of the fundraiser allegedly told Mr. Fortenberry that some of the contributions from the event were likely funded by Mr. Chagoury. The co-host cooperated with federal investigators and helped them obtain the recording.
Mr. Summers told jurors that the call was an unmemorable one for Mr. Fortenberry, who may have been distracted or unable to hear—and didn’t recall the exchange in detail when interviewed later by federal authorities.
“In reality, what they created was a failed memory test,” Mr. Summers said, adding, “When you really look at it, it’s clear as mud.”
Mr. Chagoury entered into an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in 2019 to avoid prosecution and admitted that he gave money to individuals in the U.S. to be used to make contributions to four candidates.
Mr. Fortenberry was a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the top Republican on the Agriculture subcommittee, but stepped down from those positions after his indictment. House GOP Conference 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.
Mr. Fortenberry represents Nebraska’s First Congressional District, which is located in the eastern part of the state and is expected to remain in Republican hands in the 2022 midterm elections. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district “solid Republican.”
However, Mr. Fortenberry will have to make it through a competitive GOP primary where the indictment has shadowed the race. One of his opponents, state Sen.
a previous speaker of the state Senate, has garnered the support of prominent local Republicans, including the current Gov.
Mr. Flood and his supporters argue that Mr. Fortenberry’s indictment will make him vulnerable in a general election.
—Eliza Collins contributed to this article.
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