LOS ANGELES (CN) — Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska may worry a little less about payback from outspoken opponents of his party's politics as he goes on trial in Los Angeles — a Democratic stronghold — over illegal campaign contributions from a Parisian billionaire.
At a lengthy jury selection Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld carefully questioned potential jurors about whether they could give Fortenberry a fair and impartial trial if they learned he was a Republican.
For a number of them, the answer was a clear and unambiguous "no."
"I wouldn't believe him, definitely not if he was a Republican," said one woman, citing her dislike of what she referred to as the Republican party's voter suppression efforts in recent years. "I'd probably be prejudiced."
Another woman, a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said a law passed during the Trump administration caused her family great grief. She said that she had strong feelings about that political party, which she didn't specifically identify, and that she wouldn't be able to trust someone from that party.
The judge, a Donald Trump appointee, didn't ask jurors to declare which political party they supported, but he struck the jurors with the most outspoken dislike of Republicans or politicians in general from the pool. Fortenberry's lawyers cut a few more who had volunteered their distrust of politicians.
Fortenberry, 61, stands accused of concealing illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Charougy, a Nigeria-born billionaire who lives in Paris, once he was made aware of them in 2018 and of lying to federal investigators on two occasions when he was interviewed the following year. If convicted, he faces as long as five years in prison on each of the three charges. Foreign nationals aren't allowed to contribute to U.S. election campaigns.
The nine-term congressman who represents Nebraska's 1st District is on trial in Los Angeles because that is where the 2016 fundraiser where the illegal contributions occurred took place. His lawyers tried unsuccessfully to have the trial moved to Nebraska, citing Fortenberry's "compelling need" to have the case tried as soon as possible because he faces challengers for his House seat "from both the left and the right" in the May 10 primary.
According to the government, Fortenberry and Charougy came to know each other around 2014 because both were involved in advocating for Christian minorities in the Middle East. Fortenberry had sponsored House resolutions condemning the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, and Chagoury, of Christian Lebanese descent, was supporting In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes the interest of Christians in Middle Eastern countries.
Federal prosecutors claim that in 2015, Fortenberry asked a U.S. associate of Chagoury to help him find contributors for his reelection campaign. Toufic Baaklini, who is now a government witness, helped set up a fundraising event at an LA restaurant and funneled $30,000 from Chagoury to Fortenberry's campaign through so-called conduit contributors whose names were used in Federal Election Commission filings.
Fortenberry has called the prosecution's case against him a "setup." His attorneys say the charges against him don't pertain to what happened in 2016 but are only based on whether in 2019 he accurately recalled a 10-minute telephone call he had a year before with a government informant. The informant was the host of the 2016 fundraiser, before he started cooperating with the FBI, and told Fortenberry in the recorded phone call that the money probably had come from Chagoury.
"The government’s investigation revealed that Congressman Fortenberry was unaware of any illegal foreign or conduit contributions to his 2016 campaign," his lawyers argued in a court filing. "With no basis to charge the congressman with a crime, the government instead concocted one."
Opening arguments kick off Thursday morning.
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