LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Attorneys for indicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry continued Friday to push for a transfer of the congressman’s trial for lying to federal investigators to Nebraska, instead of California.
During a court hearing in California which Fortenberry attended, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld questioned the need to move the trial because of COVID-19 restrictions on federal trials in that state.
The judge, during a 90-minute hearing, also chastised both prosecutors and defendants for “a lot of noise” surrounding the case, including allegations of political bias and claimed motives for charging the congressman.
“I’m not going to be influenced by noise,” Blumenfeld told the attorneys.
Fortenberry’s defense attorneys have argued they want a trial as soon as possible, in hopes of clearing the congressman’s name quickly because he faces a contested primary vote in May.
They also argue that holding the trial in California is a hardship for the Republican congressman, who has represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, and they expressed worries about facing a jury in a state dominated by Democrats.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office have argued against a move, calling it “venue shopping” by Fortenberry’s team. They maintain the trial should be held in California, where the federal investigation involving Fortenberry began.
Blumenfeld said that he would rule on some motions later Friday, but no rulings had been posted online as of Friday night.
The trial had been scheduled to begin Feb. 15 in California. A suspension of trials for the month of February is being lifted, as of Feb. 22.
Last month, prosecutors and defense attorneys proposed a trial date of March 15.
That would be nearly two months ahead of the May 10 primary election in Nebraska, in which Fortenberry is facing a stiff challenge from a fellow Republican, State Sen. Mike Flood.
Flood entered the race, in part, out of fear that the GOP could lose the 1st district seat because of Fortenberry’s legal problems. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a Democrat, is also seeking the post.
Fortenberry, 60, is accused of lying to federal investigators probing $30,000 in illegal “conduit” political contributions that had been funneled to the congressman in 2016 by a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire living in Paris. The donations were given to Fortenberry at a fundraising event in California.
Gilbert Chagoury, the billionaire, was acquainted with Fortenberry and had hosted the congressman at a dinner in Paris. He and Fortenberry had a shared interest in the welfare of minority Christian groups in the Middle East, court documents have stated.
Chagoury agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine in connection with $180,000 in illegal donations he provided to a handful of U.S. politicians, including Fortenberry and then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha. It is illegal for foreigners to donate to U.S. political campaigns.
Terry immediately gave his donations to charity; Fortenberry ultimately did the same, but only after asking for a second fundraiser in California in 2018 and after two interviews with federal agents in 2019.
Fortenberry has maintained he did not remember being told, by an FBI informant, that the 2016 donations probably came from Chagoury.
Fortenberry’s attorneys argued Friday that a memory expert should be allowed to testify at his trial about what the congressman “may have been thinking” when he did not recall what he’d been told.
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