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Former Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry avoids prison time after lying to feds in campaign finance inquiry

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/28/2022 Katherine Swartz, USA TODAY
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Former Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry was sentenced to two years probation in Los Angeles Tuesday morning for lying to federal authorities about an illegal, foreign campaign donation.

Fortenberry, who has represented Nebraska's 1st District since 2005, was convicted by a jury in March of concealing information and repeatedly lying to federal authorities in a campaign finance inquiry. He resigned days after the conviction. 

FILE - U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., arrives at the federal courthouse for his trial in Los Angeles, Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Just hours after a judge sentences the ex-congressman from Nebraska for lying to federal agents, voters in his district are expected to elect a different conservative Republican to represent the GOP-dominated district. © Jae C. Hong, AP FILE - U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., arrives at the federal courthouse for his trial in Los Angeles, Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Just hours after a judge sentences the ex-congressman from Nebraska for lying to federal agents, voters in his district are expected to elect a different conservative Republican to represent the GOP-dominated district.

The nine-term Republican congressman was sentenced on the same day Nebraska voters head to the polls for a special election to replace him.

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A federal jury in California found him guilty of one count of falsifying and concealing material facts and two counts of making false statements. Each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence and fines. 

Prosecutors recommended that U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. sentence Fortenberry up to six months prison time. Instead, the former congressman received two years probation, 320 hours community service and a fine of $25,000.

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Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury arranged in 2016 to donate $30,000 to Fortenberry’s campaign through intermediaries at a Los Angeles fundraiser, according to evidence presented at his trial. Receiving contributions from foreign nationals is a violation of federal campaign laws.

During two separate interviews with FBI agents, Fortenberry told prosecutors he was not aware of the illegal contributions, but prosecutors found evidence that Fortenberry was told about Chagoury’s contribution in a 2018 phone call. 

Neither Chagoury or any of his associates in the investigation received a prison sentence. Chagoury admitted to contributing $180,000 to four different U.S. political candidates. As part of his prosecution agreement, he agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in the investigation and paid a $1.8 million fine.

In his ruling on Tuesday in the Los Angeles federal court, Blumenfeld said Fortenberry chose "the wrong path" by lying to the FBI when he knew of the illicit contribution, but that he chose not to sentence Fortenberry to prison because the action was out of Fortenberry's character as he has no criminal record. 

Prior to the sentencing, Fortenberry already promised to appeal the decision, the Nebraska Examiner reported

Fortenberry resigned from office in March, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts all urged him to step down. 

Prosecutors in pre-sentence briefs argued Fortenberry should receive six months in prison, along with two years of supervised release, a $30,000 fine and 150 hours of community service. 

The U.S. Probation Office in California recommended in a pre-sentence report that he receive three months in prison, one year of supervised release and a fine of $9,500. 

Fortenberry’s team fought against a prison sentence, arguing his lack of criminal record and reputational blow have already been a hefty punishment for the crime. Sixty-four letters were submitted to Blumenfeld on behalf of Fortenberry, including from his wife Celeste and his five daughters, Nebraska Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. 

What to expect in special election to replace Fortenberry

In the Republican-leaning 1st Congressional District, Republican State Sen. Mike Flood is expected to win Tuesday’s special election over Democrat State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. Regardless of who wins Tuesday, both candidates also will face each other in November’s general election for a full term starting in January.

Flood is the former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature and has been endorsed by Ricketts and former GOP Gov. Dave Heineman.

Fortenberry's resignation went into effect on June 1. The new representative will be in office through January 2023. 

The Associated Press contributed

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Former Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry avoids prison time after lying to feds in campaign finance inquiry

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