Federal jury finds Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry guilty

Congressman’s wife testified Thursday, but he did not take the stand
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Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 11:11 AM CDT|Updated: Mar. 24, 2022 at 8:24 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (WOWT) - The jury in Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s federal trial reached a verdict Thursday, finding him guilty of lying to the FBI.

Fortenberry was convicted on three counts: one count of scheming to falsify or conceal material facts and two counts of making a false statement to a government agency. Each felony charge comes with a maximum penalty of five years.

Sentencing has been set for Tuesday, June 28. The Congressman will be on release until then.

The federal case was placed in the hands of the jury of eight women and four men at 6 p.m. (Central) Thursday after attorneys on both sides wrapped up closing arguments. The jury was expected to deliberate for about an hour, but that deadline passed as jurors remained in the jury room.

At about 7:20 p.m., the judge told news media he would provide updates when he knew how long they might stay. About 50 minutes later, the jury made the notification that they had reached a verdict.

Fortenberry did not testify in his own defense, and the judge instructed the jury that while he has every right to do so, his decision not to was in no way an admission of guilt.

Before resting its case Thursday, the defense called one witness: his wife, Celeste.

“It’s been really rough,” she told the jury when asked about sitting through a weeklong trial of her husband of 26-years, “Trying to keep it together.”

Much of her testimony centered on the busy schedule of her husband and the spotty AT&T cellphone service they have at their Lincoln home.

“Kids complain about it all the time,” she said.

This is important because a key piece of evidence is the FBI recorded phone call between Rep. Fortenberry and Dr. Elias Ayoub, the Los Angeles doctor who hosted the 2016 California fundraiser — and funneled $30,000 into the congressman’s campaign from a Nigerian billionaire. Dr. Ayoub was working as an informant

The secretly recorded phone call from the summer of 2018 lasted 10-minutes.

Prosecutors point out that at no point in the phone call did Congressman Fortenberry say he had trouble understanding Dr. Ayoub.

Dr. Ayoub told the congressman that the money came from Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign national. It’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to campaigns.

In the phone call, Rep. Fortenberry asked Dr. Ayoub if he could share some dates so he could host another fundraiser.

Celeste Fortenberry said she could tell her husband was doing something else while talking with the doctor.

She thought he was making breakfast.

“That’s the sound of the teapot on the stove,” she said, as she heard the recording played back.

“That’s a cast-iron skillet,” Celeste said when hearing another excerpt of the call.

He’s a “man of routine,” she said as she described he was likely frying eggs.

Celeste Fortenberry also testified about the day in March 2019 when FBI agents dropped by their Lincoln home for an unscheduled interview.

She described it as a “scary” situation. She thought the two men were not federal agents, but imposters. Especially since they stopped by unannounced on a Saturday.

Agents testified they wanted to test his credibility on how he responded after hearing from Dr. Ayoub explain that the campaign checks from 2016 were not on the up-and-up.

Celeste Fortenberry told the jury that they were exhausted from recently getting back from Africa and her husband was distracted by dealing and helping with massive flooding in Nebraska from a bomb cyclone.

Defense attorney: “Do you believe your husband intentionally lied to the FBI?”

Celeste: “No.”

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