Accused congressman Jeff Fortenberry blames lying about Spotty mobile service
Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) may have just gambled his political career — and possibly his freedom — with a tried-and-true reason: Poor cell phone reception.
The lawyers for Fortenberry, who on Thursday became the first sitting member of Congress to stand trial in 21 years, told A federal jury found that what the government called lying to the FBI could lead to misunderstandings stemming from “poor cell phone connections.”
The government’s lawsuit against the nine-term Republican relies heavily on that phone call, which a collaborative informant recorded in 2018. During that nine-minute conversation, the informant An informant – a Fortenberry donor – told the congressman that the $30,200 donation to the Los Angeles campaign to raise funds “probably” came from an illegal source: a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, Fortenberry knew. and have met at least twice.
While Fortenberry did take some “shortcuts” to admitting his knowledge, prosecutors told jurors he chose to lie instead. The Nebraska conservative now faces trial in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, where he faces three counts related to misleading the government, each carrying a maximum sentence is 5 years.
“This was a case of choices, a series of choices made by the defendant that led him down a path of lying and unlawful deception,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Jamari Buxton said in opening statement.
However, defense—cast itself to the jury as “defenders of Congressman Fortenberry’s liberties” – saying that Fortenberry’s statements were less about deception and more about receptivity, drawing on one’s own experience jurors with speckle cell service.
Defense Attorney Glen Summers speak Fortenberry made “a small mistake”, possibly due to something he “heard wrong with a poor cell phone connection.”
Summers argued the claim in question – that the donations “may come from” the foreign billionaire – was just “a very vague statement” made to Fortenberry during the taped call. And congressman Summers said, “autopilot” in fundraising chats, a mental state that distracts him, where even a minor glitch in a call can distort understanding. your.
“They assumed he heard it, that it was registered, and that he remembered it about a year later,” the attorney told the jury. (The judge previously blocked the defense’s request to call a memory specialist at trial.)
“He never lied to the agents,” Summers said, describing the accusation as “a failed memory test.”
“When you really look at it, it’s clear as mud,” he said.
The opening arguments came after a courtroom argument the day before that could raise constitutional questions about the trial’s procedure.
The presiding judge, Stanley Blumenfield, restricted press access to the courtroom. On Wednesday, during the jury selection process, Blumenfield originally wrote all media in a satellite room with video feeds and prohibited electronics. Likewise, Blumenfield blocked remote video and audio access.
Ban, maybe violate the Constitution, the Nebraska media were particularly frustrated, who traveled to Los Angeles to cover the trial of their local congressman only to find himself frozen. And while Blumenfield opened the courtroom to a handful of press that afternoon, including the Nebraskans, the early hours of jury selection were limited — an issue that in 2019 forced judges The federal judge restarted the trial.
More press is allowed inside to open debates on Thursday, and Blumenfield got the green light allowing reporters outside the courtroom to use electronic devices to take notes and send emails.
For the trial itself, prosecutors had to prove that Fortenberry “knowingly and intentionally” lied to investigators. They have built an extensive case.
According to a prosecution memo filed last month, during a controversial nine-minute recorded call, the informant — who is cooperating with the FBI — “discussed several times” with Fortenberry about $30,200 in cash flowed into the campaign through pipeline sponsors, and most likely sourced from foreign billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury.
The informant, whose name on file only is “Individual H”, is disclosure in court this week as Dr. Elias Ayoub, a Los Angeles doctor who organized a fundraiser where illegal donations were made.
During those nine minutes with Ayoub, prosecutors said, Fortenberry “did not express surprise, concern or seek clarification” about the claim that he had received illegal foreign donations from people he knew — people “who sought his legislative support around the time he received illegal donations. Instead, the memo said, he “continued to push” Ayoub to hold a second fundraiser, asking for “a continued amount of nice generosity” from the first.
The call was one of more than 50 audio and video recordings that the prosecution passed to the defense team before the trial, adding more than 11,600 pages of “written communications, reports, transcripts, articles and other documents.” other records”.
The prosecution also has a series of witnesses. The first to take a stand on Thursday afternoon was FBI agent Todd Carter, who conducted the first interview with Fortenberry. In his testimony, Carter said that, for him, lying about political contributions was a red flag that could indicate other crimes might be taking place – noting “repentance in particular” in particular. revealed”.
That prompted Judge Blumenfield to issue some clarify statement to the jury, reminding them that Fortenberry was not charged with bribery, “and you should not conclude or make any inferences that the defendant engaged in bribery.”
The defense will cross-check Carter on Thursday night and into Friday, but he’s just first in line.
Prosecutors will also call campaign finance attorney Jessica Furst Johnson, of Hogan Lovells, to testify against her former client – an extremely rare occurrence.
Fortenberry contacted Johnson shortly after his call with Ayoub. However, according to court records, he did not elaborate with Johnson on that call, but only mentioned an “unwarranted and unremembered concern” about something he had not heard of. we heard. “
Johnson was unable to extract more information, prosecutors said, and decided that she could not advise Fortenberry of an “unverifiable allusion” of a possible “false check.” The campaign paid Hogan Lovells $212.50 for Johnson’s time, but didn’t discourage illegal donations until the following year, after Fortenberry’s second federal interview.
For my part, defense Discuss in her opening remarks on Thursday that Johnson had previously known Fortenberry as “the crying wolf boy,” so she “blows him up” when he called with a question about the fundraiser. (Fortenberry apparently never paid any of Johnson’s companies prior to that call.)
Fortenberry’s then-head of fundraising, Alexandra Kendrick, will also stand firm.
According to the prosecution filing, Kendrick “repeatedly emphasized” to Fortenberry that the 2016 fundraiser posed the risk of illegal foreign donations. Prosecutors say she spoke from experience and recounted a “warning story” with Fortenberry about an event in which she ran for another client with ties to foreign nationals “from the same place” community,” who ended up making an illegal donation.
At the Fortenberry event, Kendrick asked sponsors to fill out the necessary forms in front of her, “and she made sure the defendant knew she was taking these prudent steps,” the record said. remember to tell.
Prosecutors also noted that Fortenberry herself thought the money smelled funny.
Shortly after the 2016 events, they said in court filings, he asked one of the testifiers “what was wrong” with the fundraiser, indicating that “all the money came from a family”. The guide told him, falsely, that they were all kosher.
As for Fortenberry’s defense strategy, it is primarily focused on undermining the government’s credibility and relies on that “unreasonably unquestionable” well-known burden of proof.
From the outset, the defense tried to point out investigators as unfairly targeting Fortenberry, including calling FBI agent Carter a racist in a court case. Blumenfield, however, requested that the document be removed from the record, barred Fortenberry from arguing that the case was politically motivated, and presented a range of other motives before the trial.
However, Fortenberry’s attorney told jurors on Thursday that the FBI did it for Fortenberry, claiming that the agents planned to “provide” information the congressman would “set up” charges against. tied on the road.
“Their purpose was not to obtain information… no, it was to prosecute Representative Fortenberry,” Summers told the jury, claiming that the FBI had “ambushed” the congressman at his home with “a conspiracy.” tips” because of national security concerns. (Fortenberry voluntarily requested a second interview, in which he also allegedly lied.)
Furthermore, the accusations of lying were just a sour grape, the defense said, it was only after an investigation into the donations that the code, called “Operation Titan’s Grip,” became a “pie” burgers nothing big.”
That part is not entirely correct.
The unions learned of Fortenberry’s contributions to the investigation of Chagoury, who ultimately agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine for giving a total of $180,000 in illegal gifts to officials. United States institutions, including Fortenberry. (Ayoub also signed a plea agreement.) Officials include Fortenberry’s Nebraskan colleague, former Representative Lee Terry, along with Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and his presidential campaign. Senator Mitt Romney.
However, only Fortenberry was prosecuted.
Last October, Issa told Politico, “No, I don’t have the same problems [as Fortenberry]”, Note that he” made no statement to any FBI – or anything else. “
But if misleading government officials is a crime, Fortenberry appears to have breached that standard this week.
On Tuesday, he notification Secretary of the House of Commons he will have to vote by proxy, “due to the ongoing public health emergency.”
https://www.thedailybeast.com/indicted-congressman-jeff-fortenberry-blames-lying-charges-on-spotty-cell-service?source=articles&via=rss Accused congressman Jeff Fortenberry blames lying about Spotty mobile service