Fortenberry sentenced to probation, fined for lying to FBI

Prosecution recommended prison time, $30,000 fine for former Nebraska GOP Congressman; defense, supporters pushed for probation only
Former Congressman Fortenberry left the federal courthouse in Los Angeles essentially a free man.
Published: Jun. 28, 2022 at 10:32 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 28, 2022 at 10:54 AM CDT
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (WOWT) - Former Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry was back in a California courtroom Tuesday morning for sentencing for lying to the FBI.

Fortenberry, a Republican, was found guilty by a federal jury in Los Angeles in March. On Tuesday, a federal judge sentenced him to two years probation and a $25,000 fine.

The nine-term Congressman arrived at the courthouse Tuesday morning with his wife, his attorneys, and a number of supporters at his side.

During sentencing, Fortenberry, 60, was sitting quietly as a federal judge read the sentence in a Los Angeles courtroom and chose not to address the court. Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. told Fortenberry that his choice to lie to the FBI should be judged against his overall history and character as a person — and that by all accounts from witnesses and letters written to the judge, the former Congressman from Lincoln is “good, moral, honest.”

The judge said Fortenberry “turned a blind eye and a deaf ear” to indications that the source of his donations was illicit, but he said Fortenberry was by all accounts — including prosecution witnesses — “a man of exceptional character.”

In delivering the sentence, which includes 320 hours of community service, Blumenfeld cited cases of more significant public corruption that led to prison sentences of about a year and said he didn’t think incarceration would serve a purpose in this case. In deciding a sentence of probation over prison, the judge explained that the deterrent for others in the sentencing is that it cost Fortenberry his job as a Congressman.

“I believe that is a significant, significant consequence,” said Mack Jenkins, head of the Public Corruption Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. “We believe other consequences and custodial time also can be a deterrence, but we understand the court valued that factor significantly.”

6 News asked the prosecutors, who were asking for six months in jail, whether the sentence felt like justice.

“I think the courts clearly conveyed the seriousness of the Congressmember’s conduct,” Jenkins said. “He thought deeply about the sentence, and I think justice was achieved by his conviction — and I think the judge made clear he believes the sentence will deter other similarly powerful people from making similar choices.”

Fortenberry avoids prison time after being convicted of lying to the FBI

The government previously recommended he be locked up for six months, saying prison is appropriate when politicians repeatedly choose to lie to save themselves. They also initially asked for a $30,000 fine — the same amount that got Fortenberry into trouble with the fundraiser in the first place.

But his attorneys handed the judge dozens of letters written on Fortenberry’s behalf — from his family, longtime friends, even Lt. Gov. Mike Foley — asking for grace.

Fortenberry’s attorneys also previously argued that 1 in 10 defendants in cases like this one gets jail time: He’s over 60 years old with no criminal record — 80% of such people received probation. But the government says the defense left out “abuse of trust” and “obstruction” in the equation, and if you factor those in, the average sentence for this type of defendant is 21 months in federal prison.

Fortenberry must now report to probation in Los Angeles in 72 hours. He will be working to transfer that to Nebraska.

“This has been very traumatic, and we have more to go. I am grateful that the judge recognized that the pattern of what I wanted to do with my life is simply serve in public office and try to help people,” Fortenberry said outside the L.A. courthouse Tuesday.

Following the sentencing, Fortenberry’s team sent out a statement, posted below in its entirety, elaborating on the former Congressman’s plans. He said the FBI and the Department of Justice took advantage of him and “weaponized” the federal false statements statute — and he wants to change the law.

Meanwhile in Nebraska, voters in the state’s 1st Congressional District are casting their ballots in Tuesday’s special election to choose who will serve out the rest of Fortenberry’s term: Republican Mike Flood and Democrat Patty Pansing-Brooks were selected by their respective parties to appear on this ballot. They each also won the primary election in May and will appear on the November ballot for the term beginning in 2023.

Fortenberry statements

Former Congressman Jeff Fortenberry was sentenced in a federal courtroom Tuesday for lying to the FBI.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is serve my country and try to help people. I am grateful for over 20 years of public service, and I’m proud of my record of accomplishments for Nebraska and for America.

I am thankful Judge Blumenfeld took the time to learn about who I am and what I have done in my life. And I am grateful he recognized that ‘by all accounts’ I am a man of ‘exceptional character.’ I was humbled today when the Judge noted that the testimony, including from government witnesses, established my honesty and integrity.

Having said that, this is a case that never should have been brought; and certainly not in California. As the Judge explained today, I knew nothing about the conspiracy to illegally funnel money to my campaign. I was kept in the dark about it, just like other candidates who received similar illegal campaign contributions. I trusted the FBI agents and prosecutors from the Department of Justice. They took advantage of that trust.

I will be appealing this verdict. We are continuing the fight for fairness that we’ve waged throughout this process. The issues at stake are much bigger than me. This case shows how the federal false statements statute can be weaponized by FBI and DOJ officials in a way Congress could not have contemplated when it was enacted and that it can be used to destroy the lives of even the most honorable people. On appeal, I will seek to change the way this dangerous statute is applied so it is less subject to abuse by the FBI and DOJ in the future.

This entire matter has been deeply traumatic for me and my family, but we’re still here, still standing. I’m grateful for the tremendous outpouring of support from friends all over the world. I’m especially grateful for the love and support of my family.”

Former Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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