LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A federal judge has barred the testimony of a memory expert at the upcoming federal trial of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and blocked defense lawyers from arguing that the lead prosecutor in the case is biased.
U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, in pretrial rulings, granted a request from prosecutors to bar the testimony of the memory expert, Dr. Alan Castel.
Lawyers for Fortenberry, 60, had sought to have Castel testify that memories are often inaccurate and that memories fade as we age. The doctor was also being called to tell jurors that “repetitive, suggestive questioning and stress” — in this case, during two interviews with federal agents — can alter memories.
But Blumenfeld, in rulings filed Wednesday, agreed that Castel’s testimony would be speculative, based only on his observations of the interviews, and that “the idea that memory fades or alters over time is a concept jurors understand without the need for expert assistance.”
The judge also granted a motion by prosecutors to exclude evidence or argument that the lead prosecutor in the case, Mack Jenkins, was motivated by political bias to charge the congressman.
Fortenberry’s defense lawyers have pointed out that Jenkins has contributed to Democratic Party candidates and contended that he had “set up” the congressman by leading him to believe he wasn’t a target of their investigation.
The rulings come as attorneys prepare for a trial that will begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The trial is expected to continue through March 22.
California is where federal agents launched an investigation into $180,000 in illegal, foreign “conduit” campaign contributions from a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury. Fortenberry, as well as then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., were among the recipients.
Fortenberry was given about $30,000 from a group of Lebanese-Americans during a fundraiser in Los Angeles in 2016.
Aide raised concerns
One of his aides raised concerns about whether the money originated with Chagoury, because foreigners cannot donate to U.S. political campaigns, and all the donations came from one family. Later, an organizer of the L.A. fundraiser — by then working as an informant for the FBI — told Fortenberry that the money likely came from Chagoury, a resident of Paris who shared the congressman’s concerns over persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
But when federal agents interviewed Fortenberry in 2019, he had no recollection that the money came from a foreigner.
Terry gave away the donations he received from Chagoury to charities. Fortenberry, meanwhile, was seeking a second L.A. fundraiser for his 2018 campaign. He gave away the $30,000 to charities in late 2019, after his two interviews with federal authorities.
Fortenberry, who has served eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005, has pleaded not guilty to three felony charges.
He faces a tough challenge in the GOP primary from State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman.
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