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Rep. Fortenberry's wife testifies that her husband was often distracted during fund-raising calls

Nebraska Congressman-Campaign Contributions
Posted at 3:12 PM, Mar 24, 2022

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (Nebraska Examiner) — The wife of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry provided several explanations Thursday about why her husband may not have heard or understood warnings in a June 2018 cell phone call — warnings repeated at least three times — that his re-election campaign had received illegal contributions during a fundraiser two years earlier. 

Celeste Fortenberry testified that she and her husband were exhausted on June 4, 2018 after a long flight home from Finland.

She said the couple was stressed out, because one of their daughters was facing a serious surgery in a couple of days.

His wife of 26 years also said the congressman “loathed” making fund-raising calls, so he often did other chores — like cooking, cleaning, yard work or walking the dog — to “help him through it” while he was making such calls “on autopilot.”

She said she heard background noises during the June 2018 call that with “a high degree of probability” were the scraping sounds of a teapot and a skillet as her husband prepared breakfast during the call.

Cell phone service ‘spotty’

And, Celeste Fortenberry said, the cell phone reception at their Lincoln home was “spotty” — perhaps only one or two “bars” of service in the house — and was so bad that her husband never took calls in his cluttered, home office in the basement.

“We live in Nebraska,” the wife told jurors. “The state has kind of lousy cell phone service.”

The testimony served to bolster the defense’s case that the nine-term congressman couldn’t have lied to federal investigators, because he either didn’t hear, or didn’t comprehend, or didn’t recall what was said in that June 2018 phone call — that he had received $30,000 in illegal, “conduit” contributions that originated from a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire living in Paris, Gilbert Chagoury.

The 61–year-old Republican is charged with lying to agents in two interviews in 2019. He is also charged with attempting to conceal the L.A. donations by not amending his federal campaign reports. Fortenberry faces up to five years in prison on each felony count.

The congressman, on Thursday morning, informed the court that he would not be testifying in his own behalf.

Closing arguments coming

Closing arguments before a jury of eight women and four men are expected after some additional, rebuttal evidence is submitted.

Prosecutors maintain that Fortenberry lied “several” times to investigators. They reject claims by Fortenberry’s attorneys that he was “set up” for prosecution, and that FBI agents planned to charge him before interviewing him. They point to his failure to amend his federal campaign spending report, after the 2018 call, to reflect that the donations didn’t come from eight, Lebanese-Americans in Los Angeles, but Chagoury, the billionaire.

Dr. Elias Ayoub testified earlier in the trial that he’d been given a paper bag full of $30,000 in cash from an associate of Chagoury, Toufic Baaklini, to be distributed, through so-called “straw men,” during a fundraiser at an L.A. home in February of 2016.

In June of 2018, the FBI recorded a phone call between Ayoub and Fortenberry in which the doctor told him three times that the money had been provided from Baaklini — making it an illegal conduit contribution — and “probably” originated from Chagoury. 

Recoding of call played

Donations from foreigners to U.S. political campaigns are illegal, either directly or through others.

Prosecutor Susan Har, during cross-examination of Celeste Fortenberry, asked if her husband took important phone calls in a certain area of the home to ensure that he heard what was said.

An audio recording of the 2018 call from Dr. Ayoub was played again on Thursday — the fourth time jurors have heard it during the seven-day trial. A handful of jurors scribbled notes while it was being played.

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