LINCOLN, Neb. – Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on Friday faced growing pressure from congressional leaders and Nebraska’s GOP governor to resign after a California jury found him guilty of lying to federal authorities about an illegal $30,000 campaign donation from a Nigerian billionaire.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy both urged the nine-term congressman to leave office, as did Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has endorsed Fortenberry’s top Republican primary challenger.
“The people of Nebraska deserve active, certain representation,” Ricketts said. “I hope Jeff Fortenberry will do the right thing and resign so his constituents have that certainty while he focuses on his family and other affairs.”
McCarthy said he texted Fortenberry about the conviction and planned to talk to him about the matter on Friday.
“I think when someone’s convicted, it’s time to resign,” McCarthy told reporters in Jacksonville, Florida.
Pelosi said Fortenberry’s conviction “represents a breach of the public trust and confidence in his ability to serve. No one is above the law.”
A federal jury in Los Angeles deliberated for about two hours Thursday before finding Fortenberry guilty of concealing information and two counts of making false statements to authorities. Fortenberry was charged after denying to the FBI that he was aware he had received illicit funds from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent who lives in Paris.
The three men who funneled money to Fortenberry from Chagoury were all of Lebanese descent and had ties to In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit Fortenberry supported that was devoted to fighting religious persecution in the Middle East.
Outside the courthouse, Fortenberry said the process had been unfair and that he would appeal immediately. He would not say if he would suspend his campaign for reelection, saying he was going to spend time with his family.
“I’m getting so many beautiful messages from people literally all around the world, who’ve been praying for us and pulling for us,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said prosecutors haven’t yet considered what penalty they will seek when Fortenberry is sentenced June 28. Each count carries a potential five-year prison sentence and fines.
Vince Powers, a veteran trial lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska, who has followed Fortenberry's case, said the judge will likely rely on federal guidelines when deciding what sentence to impose.
Powers said that, based on his reading of the guidelines, Fortenberry could be looking at 15-21 months in prison. Given Fortenberry's location, Powers said it's likely he would get sent to the FPC Yankton, a minimum-security federal prison in Yankton, South Dakota, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Lincoln.
The judge could also deviate from the guidelines with a higher or lower sentence. But Powers said it's unlikely Fortenberry would only get probation.
“I don't see how he stays out of prison,” said Powers, a former Nebraska Democratic Party chairman.
Felons are eligible to run for and serve in Congress, but the vast majority choose to resign under threat of expulsion. Congressional rules also bar members from voting on legislation after a felony conviction unless their constituents reelect them.
It was the first trial of a sitting congressman since Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of bribery and other felony charges in 2002.
Campaign spokesman Chad Kolton said Friday that Fortenberry had no immediate response to the calls for his resignation.
“He's spending time with his family right now,” Kolton said. “That's what's most important today.”
Fortenberry's indictment in October drew a serious Republican primary challenge from state Sen. Mike Flood, a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature who has since won the endorsements of Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman. A Flood campaign spokesman declined to comment Friday on the news of Fortenberry's conviction.
The winner of the GOP primary is likely to face state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a Democrat from Lincoln, but Nebraska's 1st Congressional District is heavily Republican and hasn't been competitive in decades.
On Friday, Pansing Brooks said Fortenberry's conviction was a “wake-up call” that the district needs a change and called for an overhaul of campaign finance laws to increase transparency.
“We cannot allow a return to business as usual as this dust settles," Pansing Brooks said, adding that Nebraska is likely "to be the brunt of some jokes” because of Fortenberry's conviction.
Fortenberry, 61, did not testify at trial but his lawyers argued that he wasn’t aware of the contribution and that agents directed an informant to feed him the information in a 10-minute call to set him up.
Jenkins, the federal prosecutor, said there was ample recorded evidence in the case and the jury's swift verdict vindicated the prosecution's efforts.
“Our view is that it was a simple story," Jenkins said. “A politician caught up in the cycle of money and power. And like I said, he lost his way.”
Jenkins said the verdict should serve as a reminder to lawmakers that foreign influence and violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act are taken seriously.
“Lawmakers should follow the law,” Jenkins said. “If we want to expect anyone to follow the law ultimately it starts with the lawmakers, and I think that’s even more paramount when the investigation itself goes to election integrity.”
Jenkins said the probe known as Operation Titan’s Grip was still ongoing.
Jenkins was asked if Fortenberry would have ended up being prosecuted if he had disclosed and returned the money sooner, as other politicians did when they learned of the donations.
He said that was hard to say but that Fortenberry’s “inaction” was evidence of a “scheme to conceal.”
Other lawmakers who had received money from the group included Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah; Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, of California; and former Republican Rep. Terry Lee, who served in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District.
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporter Farnoush Amiri in Jacksonville, Florida, contributed to this report.
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This story has been corrected to show McCarthy spoke to reporters in Jacksonville, Florida, not Washington, D.C.