Former Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry should not go to prison because he’s old (over 60), has no money (used his campaign funds and dipped into a line of credit to fund his defense team) and “lost his job, his reputation and many friends,” his attorneys say.
Further, Fortenberry’s defense team wrote Tuesday, his wife and five daughters desperately need him to stay out of prison. Los Angeles attorney John Littrell even delved into a long battle his middle daughter, now grown, had with a heart issue at birth.
“We have mortgaged our home and personally borrowed and spent extraordinary sums of money to pay legal bills; and bills are still coming in,” Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, wrote in her letter to the judge.
“We have two daughters in college — they’re wondering if they have to drop out; and another getting married — she’s already given up on her parents being able to help her pay for her wedding.”
It’s not clear what his daughters’ medical/marital conditions have to do with the fact that a jury found that Fortenberry lied to the FBI and attempted to conceal that his campaign had received $30,000 in dirty campaign donations.
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But Fortenberry’s defense team pulled out all the stops as their client prepares to find out his fate from U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. in a Los Angeles courtroom June 28.
In March, a jury convicted Fortenberry, a nine-term Republican congressman representing Nebraska’s 1st District, of two counts of lying to federal agents and one count of trying to conceal the source of $30,000 in foreign money to his campaign. It is illegal for U.S. politicians to accept money from foreigners.
Fortenberry, who resigned from Congress after his conviction, faces supervised release or up to five years in prison on each of three counts.
Among the 64 people who submitted letters on his behalf: three current or former members of Congress (none from Nebraska); Nebraska Lt. Gov. Mike Foley; Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning; and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln’s archdiocese.
Conley wrote that he has known the Fortenberrys for a decade or more and “cannot bear the thought of the pain that might be caused to the Fortenberrys should jail time be demanded.”
The most promising piece of literature submitted on the former congressman’s behalf came from the the U.S. Probation Office, which submitted a presentence report recommending Fortenberry, 61, receive a probation term. Fortenberry’s attorneys noted that of defendants over age 60 charged with a similar class of crimes in the past three years, 81.5% received probation.
Prosecutors disagree with the probation recommendation. The federal anti-corruption team, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins, asked Blumenfeld to sentence Fortenberry to six months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release, and 150 hours of community service. Pointedly, prosecutors also asked the judge to fine Fortenberry $30,000.
Blumenfeld, a stickler in court, is not bound by either recommendation. Another public corruption case in the same courthouse netted Mitchell Englander, a former Los Angeles City Council member, 14 months in prison. In that case, a different judge determined Englander had “undermined the public trust” by accepting bribes, gambling money and escorts. But Englander accepted responsibility and pleaded to the counts, whereas Fortenberry took his case to trial.
Jenkins wrote that “Fortenberry was a powerful career politician who swore an oath to support and defend the United States and to serve the interests of his constituents.”
“Defendant violated that oath, and broke the law, when he repeatedly chose to serve himself, his political career and his ego during the course of a significant federal investigation of … bribery and foreign influence — paramount matters implicating the core of American democracy,” Jenkins wrote.
Fortenberry’s defense team countered with emotional pleas, including 64 letters from family and friends. In a 3½-page letter, Celeste Fortenberry detailed one of their daughters’ medical conditions, and the family’s now-struggling financial condition. She delved into her husband’s personal history (his father died when he was 12) as well as his causes in Congress. “I fell in love with him because he is noble and good,” she wrote.
“Please don’t send my husband away from me,” she wrote. “We’ve endured 17 years of Dad missing birthdays, anniversaries, violin and piano recitals, school programs, swim meets, softball games, dance recitals, parent-teacher conferences, graduations, picnics parties and more. Seventeen years of lonely and sometimes fearful nights when I’ve wondered if that noise was someone breaking in to carry out one of the multitude threats of rape, violence and murder leveled against us because of Jeff’s work.”
Celeste Fortenberry said her husband has “suffered public slander about his character extending far beyond the counts of his conviction.” At one point, his attorneys argued that serving in Congress “exposed Mr. Fortenberry and his family to threats and vandalism.” The memo didn’t detail threats or vandalism, though Fortenberry once demanded prosecution for whomever put googly eyes on a campaign sign and changed his name to Fartenberry.
“He has lost the ability to continue to do good and great things for our nation and for the world — the only reason he ever wanted to be in public office,” Celeste Fortenberry said. “He can no longer vote. He can no longer hunt. Jeff’s federal pension will most likely be taken away — the majority of our retirement savings.”
The most prominent Nebraskan to write a letter on Fortenberry’s behalf: current Nebraska Lt. Gov. Mike Foley. In Fortenberry, Foley broke with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. Ricketts endorsed State Sen. Mike Flood in his run against Fortenberry before the convictions.
Flood now will face Democrat Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in a special election June 28, the day of Fortenberry’s sentence, to fill the remainder of his term. The two will then square off again in November.
In a May 27 letter on “Office of the Lieutenant Governor” letterhead, Foley urged Blumenfeld to impose no prison sentence or a “minimal” one. Foley said he knows Fortenberry to “be a man of the highest integrity.”
“In the most simple and direct manner, I can state without hesitation that Jeff is a good and honorable man,” Foley wrote. “A prison sentence would serve no useful purpose as Jeff has already suffered the loss of his position in the U.S. Congress, not to mention the damage to his reputation and good name. A prison sentence would completely disrupt Jeff’s opportunity to immediately commence the rebuilding of his life.
“Jeff is needed by his family and he merits the opportunity to rebuild his life now.”
A longtime chairman of a conservation lobbying group told the judge that he has known “dozens if not hundreds” of Congress members. “Without exception, I believe that Jeff Fortenberry was the most noble of them all; in fact, I called him the ‘altar boy,’ ” wrote David Barron, chairman of the International Conservation Caucus.
The defense’s sentencing memo was capped with photos of the Fortenberry’s third child — and details of the “severe heart defect” she “was born with … (which) required multiple medical interventions.” It noted that during her second open-heart surgery, which occurred when she was 4 years old, a surgeon nicked her aortic valve.
“Since then, Kathryn has required near-constant medical attention,” Celeste Fortenberry wrote. “She was bedridden for much of high school. She has nearly died several times.”
Kathryn herself wrote that “it is unthinkable that I would have to be separated from my father as a result of a prison sentence.”
The Fortenberrys’ youngest daughter wrote of his devotion to his family and of the devastation that the guilty verdict wrought.
“It was like my whole world was crashing down,” she wrote. “If this is how the trial affected us, I am terrified to see what the sentencing will do.”
Another daughter wrote of her dad’s exhaustion at being a congressman and how he would play checkers with her as a young child. The games decreased as his responsibilities increased, she wrote. “As a young child this was disheartening until I realized that he now had thousands of other families that he was taking care of and everyone needed his checkers time.”
“My dad was not one to make many rules or give instructions,” she wrote. “He doesn’t like crumbs on the floor or sparkles on his clothes. But the one rule that will always stick with me was this: Fortenberrys don’t lie and Fortenberrys don’t quit.”
Prosecutors argued that Fortenberry could have avoided his resignation from Congress if he had simply not lied. They noted that Fortenberry ignored all of the red flags surrounding his February 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. A campaign consultant had warned Fortenberry to be careful with fundraisers dominated by foreign names. Afterward, a fundraiser expressed concern that most of the donors had the same last name: Ayoub.
Chagoury had steered money into three other politicians’ campaigns: former Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and current California Rep. Darrell Issa. Those three gave the money up once they learned it was questionable. Fortenberry waited more than three years to disgorge the money — and did so only after the second of two FBI interviews conducted as part of a federal investigation into foreign money in U.S. campaigns.
“Despite numerous opportunities to correct his course, defendant deliberately and proactively chose the path of self-preservation and abandoned his oath and duty when he made the calculated decision to repeatedly lie to and mislead federal investigators,” Jenkins wrote on behalf of fellow prosecutors Jamari Buxton and Susan Har.
The feds weren’t even aware of Fortenberry until three years into their investigation into foreign money in campaigns. Then came April 2018: the congressman reached out to Ayoub to see if he would do another fundraiser. By then, Ayoub was cooperating with the feds, unbeknownst to Fortenberry.
In that June 2018 phone call, he told Fortenberry three times that the $30,000 cash donated in 2016 “probably” came from Chagoury and that he wouldn’t be able to raise as much next time.
Ten months later, in March 2019, FBI agents showed up at Fortenberry’s home and questioned him about the source of the money. During that interview, Fortenberry said he couldn’t place Ayoub, the man who had held the fundraiser for him.
Four months later, in July 2019, Fortenberry and his then-attorney, Trey Gowdy, sat down again with Jenkins and the FBI. Jenkins thought the congressman was going to come clean. Instead, he denied that Ayoub told him the money came from Chagoury.
It wasn’t until after that interview that Fortenberry finally did what Romney, Terry and Issa had readily done: he purged the money from his campaign.
“After being provided numerous opportunities to come clean, defendant unapologetically chose to do the opposite,” prosecutors wrote. “For his pattern of choosing hubris over honesty and for the trampled public trust that defendant leaves in his wake, a meaningful term of imprisonment is appropriate and necessary.”
Fortenberry’s lawyers said making Fortenberry an example would be setting a double standard.
“To single Mr. Fortenberry out for prison because he is a public figure,” they wrote, “would be to treat him less favorably than others as a result of his extraordinary life achievements.”
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Toufic Baaklini, who resigned on Sunday, had served as president and a board member for several years for In Defense of Christians, an organization that fights persecution of Christians.
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A source said an indictment could come as early as Tuesday. The nine-term Republican from Lincoln said he is being wrongly accused. “We will fight these charges. I did not lie to them,” he said.
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