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Ninth Circuit overturns conviction of ex-congressman Fortenberry

The panel disagreed with the Justice Department that the Nebraska politician could be put on trial in Southern California when his false statements were made in Nebraska and Washington.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday threw out the conviction of former U.S. Representative Jeffrey Fortenberry, who was found guilty in 2022 of concealing an illegal campaign donation from a Parisian billionaire and lying to the FBI.

In an unanimous decision, the appellate panel said the veteran Republican politician from Nebraska shouldn't have been put on trial in Los Angeles for false statements he made to federal agents in his home state and in Washington D.C.

“We are gratified by the Ninth Circuit’s decision," Fortenberry said in a statement provided by his attorney. "Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has stood by us and supported us with their kindness and friendship.”

The court specifically rejected the government's position that Southern California was the proper venue for Fortenberry's trial because his purported false statements affected the investigation of illegal campaign donations by Gilbert Chagoury, the Nigerian-born, Paris-based billionaire, which was handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office in LA.

Instead, the proper venue should have been where Fortenberry made the statements that prosecutors claim were false, according to the ruling, which left open the possibility that the former congressman could be put on trial again.

"The Constitution plainly requires that a criminal defendant be tried in the place where the criminal conduct occurred," said U.S. District Judge James Donato, a Barack Obama appointee who sat on the appellate panel by designation from the Northern District of California. "The venue and vicinage clauses may not be disregarded simply because it suits the convenience of federal prosecutors.".

At the hearing of Fortenberry's appeal this past July, the three-judge panel had already expressed their discomfort with the idea that a defendant could be put on trial in a jurisdiction where they weren't accused of having committed a crime.

U.S. Circuit Judges Salvador Mendoza Jr. and Gabriel Sanchez, both Joe Biden appointees, rounded out the panel.

“The ruling does not preclude a retrial on the charges that then-Congressman Fortenberry made multiple false statements to federal agents," said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in LA. "We are evaluating potential next steps before deciding how best to move forward.”

A federal jury in 2022 found Fortenberry, 62, guilty of concealing a $30,000 illegal campaign contribution from Chagoury, with whom he shared a passion for the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East, and lying to the FBI when they questioned him about donation. He was sentenced to two years probation after the judge found his crimes to be "out of character" for the longtime politician and didn't require prison time.

Although the illegal campaign contribution occurred at a 2016 fundraiser in LA, the charges only pertained to statements Fortenberry made some three years later, after the organizer of the fundraiser had started cooperating with the FBI investigation into Chagoury, who illegally contributed to various campaigns.

The informant had alerted Fortenberry in a 2018 phone call recorded by the FBI that the money he raised in LA had in fact come from Chagoury, who as a foreign national couldn't contribute to federal campaigns, and was given to the congressman through "straw men" at the event. In two subsequent interviews with the FBI, in Nebraska and in Washington, Fortenberry said he didn't know the money had come from an illegal source.

Fortenberry represented Nebraska's 1st Congressional District from 2005 through March 2022, 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 face persecution.

The former congressman got caught up in the FBI's investigation of possible Federal Election Campaign Act violations by Chagoury, who had a house in Beverly Hills at the time and who investigators believed was secretly injecting foreign money into U.S. election campaigns. Chagoury in 2021 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.

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Politics

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