LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Attorneys battled last week over whether the jury in U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s criminal trial will be allowed to hear the entirety of interviews he gave to federal investigators.
Lawyers for the embattled Republican, who is accused of three felony charges of lying or misleading the investigators, want jurors to hear the entirety of the interview he gave at his home in Lincoln to show “the agents’ interruptive questioning and invitations to tangents.”
In pretrial motions filed last week, federal prosecutors proposed to submit 19 segments of a nearly 50-minute interview in March 2019, in part to save time.
‘Dug himself a hole’
But Fortenberry’s defense attorneys argued that the interview should be shown to jurors in its entirety to “rebut the government’s theory that Fortenberry ‘dug himself a medium-sized hole’ by providing willfully incomplete and inaccurate responses.
“Fortenberry tried in good faith to recall the events asked about to the best of his ability, but those efforts are not fully apparent without all his statements and the context of this entire interview,” his attorneys stated.
Prosecutors also gave notice that they want to submit 27 clips from a July 2019 interview that Fortenberry, along with his then-attorney, former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, gave to authorities. But defense lawyers want five more segments presented to jurors, including clips that quote the congressman as saying, “I’m just not recalling” and “I don’t remember.”
U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld took those arguments and others given at a court hearing Thursday under advisement.
Trial move rejected
Last week, Blumenthal rejected an effort to move the trial to Nebraska. It is scheduled to begin on March 15 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Fortenberry was among a handful of U.S. politicians who received illegal “conduit” campaign donations from a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury, who was living in Paris. It is illegal for foreigners to donate to American political campaigns.
Fortenberry received $30,000 at a California fundraiser in 2016 that originated from Chagoury, with whom he had dined in Paris and befriended because of their shared concerns about treatment of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
Federal authorities allege that the congressman, who has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, lied repeatedly about his knowledge of the donations.
Fortenberry’s lawyers maintain that he was “set up” by federal agents and simply didn’t recall the source of the donations or that he had a lapse in memory.
Tough primary ahead
Fortenberry is facing a tough challenge in the GOP primary election from State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman. They maintain that Fortenberry’s legal troubles could lead to Republicans losing the 1st District seat.
Members of Fortenberry’s team, meanwhile, say they want a quick trial to clear his name so that he can focus on retaining his post.
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