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Former Congressman Fortenberry dodges prison time for concealing illegal campaign donation

The judge found that the Nebraska Republican's choice to conceal and lie about the illegal donation was out of character and didn't warrant prison time.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced former U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry to two years probation following his conviction for concealing an illegal campaign contribution from a Parisian billionaire with whom he shared a passion for the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East — and lying to the FBI about it.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. on Tuesday also ordered the Nebraska Republican to pay a $25,000 fine and to serve 320 hours of community service.

"The court is convinced that this wrongful choice was out of character," the judge said in denying the government's request to sentence Fortenberry to six months in prison. "By all accounts he's a man of outstanding character."

Fortenberry's attorney, John Littrell, unsuccessfully pleaded with the judge to lower the $25,000 fine, saying his client was not a man of great means who stood to lose his federal pension while having five daughters to support. Fortenberry didn't address the judge himself.

A Los Angeles jury in February took less than two hours to find Fortenberry, 61, guilty of concealing a $30,000 campaign donation he had received indirectly at a 2016 LA fundraiser from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-born businessman of Christian Lebanese descent who makes his home in Paris. The jury also convicted Fortenberry of lying to the FBI when they confronted him about the donation after he had been told by the host of the fundraiser where the money had come from.

"Defendant’s false statements and obstruction of justice are not victimless crimes," prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in LA said in their sentencing memo. "When a public official is revealed to have betrayed his oath, lied to federal investigators to protect his career and image, and endeavored to impede a significant federal investigation into matters affecting the core of our democracy, the public’s trust in its government is deeply affected."

Fortenberry had represented Nebraska's 1st Congressional District from 2005 through March this year, when he resigned from Congress because of his conviction. He had come to know Chagoury through their mutual involvement with In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit that lobbied Congress on behalf of Christian groups and other religious minorities in the Middle East that faced persecution.

The former congressman got caught up in the FBI's investigation of possible Federal Election Campaign Act violations by Chagoury, who also had a house in Beverly Hills at the time and who investigators believed was secretly injecting foreign money into U.S. election campaigns. Chagoury last year paid $1.8 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department over $180,000 in illegal contributions he made to four different campaigns.

The host of the 2016 fundraiser for Fortenberry, which involved a group Lebanese Christians living in the LA area, testified at the trial that the FBI wasn't even interested in Fortenberry when they first started questioning him but were focused on other U.S. politicians to whom Chagoury might have given money, including 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. After first lying to the FBI, the host, Dr. Elias Ayoub, was wracked by guilt and testified that he told investigators about the other campaigns and about Fortenberry.

The investigation of Fortenberry didn’t gain traction until 2018, when the congressman texted Ayoub that he wanted to have a call with him. Ayoub informed the FBI and the agency recorded the calls. In the first call, Fortenberry asked about the possibility of another fundraiser in LA — a call for which the FBI only asked the doctor to hear Fortenberry out.

In the second call, however, Ayoub had been coached to put Fortenberry on notice that the bulk of the donations at the 2016 fundraiser had been illegal. On four occasions, he broached the subject with Fortenberry, telling him that they likely wouldn’t be able to raise as much money as before because $30,000 in cash had come from an associate of Chagoury and probably from Chagoury himself.

Federal prosecutors say that once Fortenberry knew the donations were illegal, he neither disclosed this to the Federal Election Commission nor disgorged the money as required by law. Instead, the government claims, he lied to investigators about what he been told about the origin of the funds.

"The conviction in this case devastatingly impacted Mr. Fortenberry’s life," his attorneys said in their bid to keep him out of prison. "Once a revered public servant, Mr. Fortenberry resigned from Congress. Stripped of the rights to vote and possess a firearm, Mr. Fortenberry cannot even participate in our democracy. The federal pension that he relied on for retirement is now in jeopardy."

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