Fortenberry trial: Government rests, defense calls former Rep. Gowdy

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Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 1:21 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (WOWT) - The defense began presenting its case Wednesday after the prosecution rested its case in the trial of Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, working to paint a picture of the Congressman as an honest man full of integrity by focusing on his actions.

The government rested its case Wednesday morning. Immediately thereafter, the defense presented a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case for a variety of reasons — including the government trying the case in the wrong venue. All along the defense team has argued the case should have been tried in Nebraska or Washington, D.C, where the interviews of the congressman happened.

Fortenberry, who was first elected in 2005, is accused of lying to the FBI when it came to questions about $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions during a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.

The government alleges the initial crimes took place in Los Angeles, as well as the investigation, so it’s an appropriate place to hold the trial. But Judge Stanley Blumenfeld denied the defense request to dismiss the case.

The fifth day of testimony began with the Fortenberry defense team questioning the motives of federal agents before their unannounced interview in March 2019. They showed an FBI agent a document preceding the interview in Lincoln that indicated the government intended to charge Rep. Fortenberry before ever talking to him.

His defense team asked the agent about the FBI’s motives after showing a document entitled “sensitive interview,” saying they were out to get him. They claim that before the secret interview at the Congressman’s home, agents planned to charge him for crimes anyway — and never did so until two years later.

Fortenberry’s team has claimed all along that the government has been deceitful and aggressive in pursuing the Congressman.

The Fortenberry campaign responded to the testimony Wednesday morning with a statement: ”The California prosecutors’ own statements highlight the aggressive, deceitful practices they used to set up Congressman Fortenberry.”

FBI Agent Edward Choe explained to the jury that the memo was necessary in order to get permission to secretly record a sitting member of Congress — and whether or not Fortenberry would be charged would depend on his answers during the Lincoln interview.

Choe said investigators wanted to see what happened next: whether Fortenberry would return the $30,000 in illegal contributions, which didn’t happen until the D.C. interview; whether he would correct election paperwork; and who he contacted after the interview.

The defense team called its second witness on Wednesday: Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, a longtime California Congresswoman, testified as a character witness. She said Fortenberry “brings integrity to everything he does.”

The third defense witness took the stand just before lunch: former South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy, who served as Fortenberry’s counsel during the Washington, D.C., interview in July 2019.

Gowdy told the court he was there to help the investigation, believing the Congressman was a witness — not the subject of the investigation. The government contends it was clear Fortenberry was the subject of the investigation.

Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, is also expected to take the stand.

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