LOS ANGELES (NEBRASKA EXAMINER) — The defense of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry against charges that he lied to federal investigators began in earnest on Wednesday, with his defense claiming that FBI agents intended to charge the nine-term congressman before even interviewing him.
From the start, defenders of the Nebraska Republican have maintained that he was “set up” by agents, who had a cooperating witness “feed” information to Fortenberry that he’d been given $30,000 in illegal, “conduit” political contributions at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016 that “probably” originated from a foreigner, a billionaire living in Paris.
Political contributions to U.S. politicians through conduits or “straw men” are illegal, as are donations from foreigners.
‘Sensitive interview’ form
On Wednesday, the defense got to cross-examine FBI agent Edward Choe, who took over as case agent for the investigation into Gilbert Chagoury and the others.
Defense attorney Ryan Fraser had Choe read the FBI interview request form, filled out by another case agent, that was required before agents could interview a sitting congressman, in this case Fortenberry, at his Lincoln home in March of 2019.
The “Sensitive Interview” request stated that “case agents will also seek to charge Mr. Fortenberry.”
But when Choe was asked if that meant the FBI intended to charge the congressman before even talking to him, the FBI agent replied “no,” that wasn’t his “plan, per se.” He also said the co-case agent on the investigation, Todd Carter, likely filled out that interview request form.
Choe later read another pre-interview document, signed by four top FBI officials, that said “if case agents determine if Congressman Fortenberry made false statements, he will be charged.”
Prosecutor Susan Har also asked, as she did on Tuesday, how he could tell that Fortenberry had been untruthful during his two interviews with FBI agents, in March of 2019 in Lincoln and in July of 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Fortenberry told ‘multiple times’
Choe said that the congressman had been told “multiple times” in a phone call in June of 2018 with the host of the L.A. fundraiser — a call coached and recorded by the FBI — that the $30,000 had been given to him by an associate of Chagoury in a brown paper bag, and was told once that the money “probably” originated from Chagoury.
Fortenberry’s statements, Choe said, “contradicted the details that had been provided to him …”
Tuesday was the fifth day of the federal trial of Fortenberry, who is charged with lying to agents in those two interviews, and attempting to conceal the L.A. donations by not amending his federal campaign reports. He faces up to five years in prison on each felony count.
The two interviews the congressman gave in 2019, as well as the June 2018 phone call that informed Fortenberry — at least three times — that the contributions were illegal, are the bedrock to the prosecution’s case.
Also testifying Wednesday morning was U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, an Armenian-American who represents the Silicon Valley area of California and shares Fortenberry’s concerns about persecution of minority religious groups in the Middle East.
“It’s the story of my family,” said Eshoo, adding that her grandparents fled the Middle East to escape a “slaughter.”
She said that she had co-sponsored a resolution with Fortenberry and two other congressional members in July 2014 condemning the genocide of Yazidis at the hands of ISIS on the Nineveh Plain of Iraq. Eshoo described Fortenberry as “honorable” and “law abiding,” but also admitted that some politicians do lie.
The congresswoman said she loathed the need to be constantly raising funds for political campaigns, and emphasized her opposition to “dark money” and its influence on American campaigns.
But when prosecutor Mack Jenkins attempted to ask her what her reaction would be, given her work on campaign ethics, if learned that she got an illegal, foreign contribution, Fortenberry’s defense attorneys objected.
Trey Gowdy testifies
U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld sustained the objection.
The judge also blocked an answer from Eshoo when she was asked what Fortenberry would do if he knew he got an illegal political contribution.
Former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former federal prosecutor who had served for a time as Fortenberry’s attorney, began testifying just before noon on behalf of the defense.
During a mid-morning break in the court testimony, Blumenfeld rejected a defense request to dismiss all charges. Defense attorneys claimed that the trial should not have been held in California.
The judge was called on frequently to rule on objections to evidence or lawyer questions by both prosecutors and the defense. Blumenfeld, more than once, urged attorneys to “move on.”
The trial, which is running longer than expected, is now expected to end either Thursday or Friday.
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