Prosecution Rests In Fortenberry Trial

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Los Angeles, CA (March 23, 2022)  (KOLN) The prosecution rested in the federal case against Congressman Jeff Fortenberry after presenting evidence for four and a half days. The prosecution presented evidence they believe shows the congressman lied to the FBI about $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions made to his campaign using foreign money and straw donors.

The defense now has the case, but before they took over, lead defense attorney John Littrell asked the judge to acquit Fortenberry on all charges. Littrell said the prosecution didn’t meet their burden of proof in the case and that California continues to be an inappropriate venue. This is standard practice for defense attorneys but the judge denied it, saying the jury will be the ones to decide.

Before the defense took over, defense attorney Ryan Fraser cross-examined the prosecution’s last witness, FBI Special Agent Edward Choe.

Fraser brought up three key issues with Choe: First, Fortenberry’s memory and the agent’s experience interviewing people whose memory may not be crystal clear. Fraser asked Choe if it’s possible Fortenberry could have mis-remembered the pivotal phone call with Dr. Ayoub in the nine and 13 months between the phone call and his two interviews. Fraser pointed out that the FBI and U.S. Attorneys had the chance to review the recording and transcript of the phone call, but Fortenberry could only go off memory.

The prosecution repeatedly objected to topics related to memory and the judge took their side. On this same topic, Fraser requested a final ruling on whether or not they can call a memory expert, but the judge wouldn’t answer immediately.

The second issue Fraser brought up is an FBI document used to request permission to interview the Congressman ahead of the Nebraska interview in March 2019. In it, Fraser pointed out that the agent who authored it said agents would seek to indict Fortenberry on charges including misprision of felony and conduit contributions, and potentially lying to the FBI. Fraser asked Choe if the agents intended to indict Fortenberry before even talking to the Congressman, based on the charges listed in the document.

Choe denied their intent to indict Fortenberry before the interview. In re-direct, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Harr had Choe clarify that it is standard practice to list potential charges that could arise from an interview as that is the purpose of a criminal investigation.

Congressman Fortenberry’s campaign spokesperson sent out a statement on this issue: “The California prosecutors’ own statements highlight the aggressive, deceitful practices they used to set up Congressman Fortenberry. FBI agents used false pretenses to gain approval to interview Fortenberry in his home. Agents created a memo saying they intended to indict him for specific crimes to justify their request to interview him and then never actually charged him with those crimes once the interview was over.”

The third major issue Fraser brought up with Choe’s testimony was the Congressman’s statements on the phone call with Dr. Ayoub. Fraser said Fortenberry did mention the phone call and his concerns during the July 2019 interview with the FBI. He said Fortenberry said he had concerns about statements related to Gilbert Chagoury’s potential involvement in a future fundraiser and took action on that by not holding any future fundraisers.

Before resting, prosecutor Harr played the audio from that interview, where after mentioning he had concerns, Fortenberry again denied knowledge of illicit campaign contributions.

The defense has started calling witnesses. Their first witness is California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo who worked with Fortenberry on legislation related to the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East dating back to 2014.

While the defense hasn’t provided a witness list, potential witnesses they could call include Fortenberry’s wife Celeste, former Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister and one of Fortenberry’s lawyers Trey Gowdy. We expect many witnesses to testify regarding Fortenberry’s character.

The defense did call one character witness out of order Tuesday due to her travel plans. It was a former intern for Fortenberry, Nibras Basitkey a Yazidi from Northern Iraq. In her testimony she said she worked with Fortenberry as an outreach coordinator for the Yazidi religion. She said she “wanted to grow up to be like him one day.”

The judge has said he will allow specific testimony about instances where the Congressman has been truthful. Because of this, the prosecution wanted to introduce an example where they believe the congressman was untruthful, a letter sent to the clerk of the House of Representatives on March 15. In the letter, Fortenberry requests to vote by proxy for two weeks due to an “ongoing public health emergency” when in reality, he’s in court.

Littrell said this is “boiler plate” language used by all representatives requesting to vote by proxy right now, but Buxton said it’s misleading. The judge said he would not allow this to be used an example because he believes they would need a lot more background information.

Fortenberry is charged with one count of scheming to falsify or conceal material facts and two counts of making a false statement to a government agency. Each felony charge comes with a maximum penalty of five years.

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