OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday rejected U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s attempts to dismiss charges accusing the Nebraska Republican of making false statements to FBI agents who were investigating an illegal foreign donation to his campaign.
U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. denied Fortenberry's motions to get the case tossed, increasing the odds that he will have to stand trial in a Los Angeles federal court.
Fortenberry is accused of lying to the FBI and concealing information from agents who were looking into a donation his campaign received from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. Chagoury made the $30,000 contribution through a middleman at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Agents interviewed Fortenberry twice, and prosecutors allege that the nine-term Congressman falsely told them he was unaware that the donation had come from an illegal foreign source and that he had properly disclosed all of his campaign donations. Prosecutors allege that Fortenberry was warned in a phone call that the donation was illegal and that he didn't properly disclose them in his campaign filings.
Fortenberry was first elected to Nebraska's heavily Republican 1st Congressional District in 2004 and he has easily defeated his Democratic challengers over the years. Some Democrats argue that the indictment makes him more vulnerable in the district, which includes left-leaning Lincoln as well as surrounding farmland and more conservative small towns in eastern Nebraska.
Fortenberry’s attorneys sought to have the charges dismissed on the grounds that the congressman made the statements to agents at his home in Lincoln and in Washington D.C., and not in the California judicial district where he's charged. Blumenfeld on Monday denied that motion, ruling that Fortenberry's alleged statements were tied to the federal investigation in Los Angeles.
“Because Defendant’s allegedly false statements were directed at federal investigative efforts occurring in this district, the Court finds that venue is proper in the Central District of California,” the judge wrote.
Blumenfeld rejected Fortenberry's arguments that his statements didn't have any effect on the federal investigation, and the congressman's claims that he didn't have a legal duty to disclose the allegedly concealed information. He also rejected Fortenberry's claims that prosecutors had concocted multiple charges from a single alleged offense.
Blumenfeld also denied Fortenberry's motion to disqualify a prosecutor from the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins. Fortenberry's attorneys have said they wanted to call him as a witness, and they believe Jenkins misled Fortenberry's previous lawyer into thinking that authorities wanted to interview Fortenberry as a potential witness, not as a target of their investigation.
Fortenberry still has a motion pending to try to suppress statements he made to investigators. A court hearing is set for Jan. 11. His trial is scheduled to start Feb. 15, but it has already been postponed several times.
Campaign spokesman Chad Kolton said Fortenberry will continue to fight the charges.
“This case still has enormous flaws, which have existed from the earliest days of the investigation and remain even after today’s decision," Kolton said. "Mr. Fortenberry has always had great faith in the American people’s ability to judge what is fair and just. Nebraskans will see this case clearly for what it is: a California prosecutor’s attempt to use deceptive investigative tactics to set up a widely respected member of Congress.”
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Grant Schulte, The Associated Press