Appeals court reverses conviction against Jeff Fortenberry


Fortenberry and his wife praised Tuesday’s decision. In a
statement to The Associated Press
, Fortenberry said “we are gratified by the Ninth Circuit’s decision,” and “Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has stood by us and supported us with their kindness and friendship.”

A Justice Department spokesperson said the decision could allow a retrial.

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

Federal prosecutors allege that Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese businessman living in Paris, gave Fortenberry a $30,000 campaign contribution at a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser by way of strawman donors. The organizer of that fundraiser, Elias Ayoub, became a cooperating witness with the FBI and told Fortenberry about the source of the funds in a 2018 phone call
recorded by investigators
.

But in 2019, Fortenberry denied awareness of any foreign campaign contributions when approached by federal investigators in Nebraska and Washington, D.C. Fortenberry was charged in 2021 with making false statements to investigators and scheming to falsify and conceal material facts. Federal prosecutors insisted on trying the Nebraska lawmaker in Los Angeles, noting that the illegal contributions were given there, though he was never charged with receiving illegal contributions.

Fortenberry was sentenced to two years’ probation and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine.

The ruling from the Ninth Circuit wasn’t completely unexpected. During oral arguments in July, Judge James Donato, one of the three judges reviewing Fortenberry’s case and the author of Tuesday’s ruling,
indicated his support
for the lawmaker’s arguments that the Justice Department violated his rights by trying him in Los Angeles.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.



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