Ex-Nebraska congressman’s conviction for lying to authorities is overturned

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned the conviction of former Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry for lying to authorities investigating illegal contributions to his 2016 reelection campaign, saying his trial was held in the wrong place.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Fortenberry should not have been tried in Los Angeles, where the Republican’s campaign allegedly received $30,000 from Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, just because federal agents who later interviewed him about the money worked there.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge James Donato said the U.S. Department of Justice could seek a new trial in Nebraska or Washington, D.C., where Fortenberry denied knowing about illegal contributions.

Prosecutors said Chagoury donated the $30,000 through “straw donors” who attended a campaign fundraiser for Fortenberry in Los Angeles. Federal law prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to campaigns for federal, state and local offices.

Donato, a district judge who normally works in San Francisco, said the trial did not belong in California just because Fortenberry’s alleged false statements affected investigators there.

“This outlandish outcome cannot be squared with the Constitution,” Donato wrote for the appeals court, which heard the case in Pasadena, California.

A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada in Los Angeles in a statement noted the prospect for a retrial, and added: “We are evaluating potential next steps before deciding how best to move forward.”

Fortenberry, who turns 63 on Wednesday, represented Nebraska’s 1st congressional district for 17 years before his March 2022 conviction on two counts of making false statements and one count of scheming to conceal material facts.

He resigned from Congress that month, and was sentenced in June 2022 to two years of probation and 320 hours of community service.

“We are gratified by the Ninth Circuit’s decision,” Fortenberry said in a statement, citing his wife. “Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has stood by us and supported us with their kindness and friendship.”

Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine in December 2019 to resolve a Justice Department probe that he illegally conspired to donate $180,000 to four candidates in federal elections.

The case is U.S. v. Fortenberry, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-50144.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Daniel Wallis)