Nebraska Congressman Fortenberry pleads not guilty

Jury trial before Los Angeles judge set for Dec. 14
WOWT 6 News Live at 6:30
Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 3:00 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 20, 2021 at 3:50 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (WOWT) - Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry entered a “not guilty” plea Wednesday to charges of concealment and making false statements.

The Congressman appeared before a Los Angeles judge Wednesday afternoon via videoconferencing.

After some procedural and technical delays, the hearing got underway just before 4 p.m. with Los Angeles attorney John Littrell representing the Congressman.

The government was not asking for Fortenberry to be detained while the case proceeds, but did ask for $50,000 in unsecured bond as part of the pre-trial supervision condition. Magistrate Judge Rozella Oliver said during the proceeding that the bond request was not unreasonable.

Littrell argued that Fortenberry should be released on the promise that he will return to court whenever asked.

The judge advised the Congressman that he was not to have contact with any of the potential witnesses — eight were entered into the record.

Littrell argued it was unreasonable to limit Fortenberry’s contact with some of the witnesses considering some are current or former employees of the Congressman, and some are clients.

The attorney said he would move to suppress comments Fortenberry made to federal investigators because he was misled. Littrell also said he would ask that the government’s attorney be removed from the case because the Congressman’s legal team plans to call him as a witness.

Fortenberry’s attorney also argued that Los Angeles wasn’t the correct venue for trial, but his jury trial has been set for Dec. 14 in Los Angeles, where he is scheduled to appear before Judge Stanely Blumenfeld.

A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted the Congressman with concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities.

The indictment follows an FBI investigation into contributions made by a foreign national to Fortenberry’s 2016 re-election campaign and charges the Nebraska Republican with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

The indictment states that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during the investigation.

In early 2016, foreign billionaire Gilbert Chagoury arranged for $30,000 of his money to be contributed through others to Fortenberry’s campaign during a fundraiser held in Los Angeles, the document states. In 2019, Chagoury ended up admitting to providing about $180,000 to make illegal contributions to four political candidates. He agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with federal authorities.

The indictment alleges that with that knowledge, Fortenberry did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission. He allegedly “knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device materials facts” about the illegal campaign contributions.

The indictment also alleges that during an interview on July 18, 2019, Fortenberry denied he was aware of any illicit donation made during the 2016 fundraiser. During that interview, the Congressman also allegedly misleadingly stated that he ended the June 2018 call after the co-host made a “concerning comment” when in fact he continued to ask the person to host another fundraiser for his campaign.

Anticipating the indictment, Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, on Tuesday morning issued a message delivered by Fortenberry’s campaign. The message included a pre-recorded video of the Fortenberry couple and their dog sitting in a pickup truck in front of a ripening cornfield. In the video, the Congressman explained how the events under scrutiny unfolded, saying he was shocked, stunned, and felt personally betrayed. He said he thought he was trying to help.

Read the indictment

Earlier this month, Fortenberry pushed back after a news website suggested he was raising money on the potential federal prosecution over campaign donations.

The campaign included language like “Unlike Swamp Creature Nancy Pelosi, I’m a principled conservative who has NEVER abused my seat in Congress to get wealthy,” and “... right now I’m facing the Deep State’s bottomless pockets.” His spokesman said Rep. Fortenberry never saw or approved the language.

Managing Editor Kevin Westhues contributed to this report.

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