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Fortenberry resigns two days after jury finds him guilty of lying to federal investigators

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Congressman thanks Nebraskans for ‘entrusting me’

LINCOLN — U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on Saturday announced his resignation, stating that due to his conviction on three federal felonies, “I can no longer serve you effectively.”

“I will resign from Congress shortly,” he said, in a three-paragraph statement.

In a letter to his congressional colleagues, in which he quotes from a poem posted on the office wall  of Mother Teresa, the devout Catholic said he would be resigning March 31.

“It has been my honor to serve with you,” said Fortenberry, who has represented eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005.

‘Conduit’ contributions

The resignation announcement comes two days after a jury in Los Angeles found the 61-year-old Republican guilty of two counts of lying to federal investigators probing illegal “conduit” campaign contributions from a foreigner and one count of trying to conceal that he had received $30,000 in those donations at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016.

On Friday, Gov. Pete Ricketts and the two top party leaders in the U.S. House, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, all asked Fortenberry to resign.

His announcement also means he is abandoning his re-election campaign, a campaign spokesman said. He faced a tough GOP challenge in the May 10 primary election from State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who had picked up endorsements from Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman.

Thanks for ‘entrusting me’

“Thank you for entrusting me with the great responsibility of governing our nation,” Fortenberry stated Saturday in what he called “My Last Fort Report,” a reference to a weekly column he wrote to constituents.

“It is my sincerest hope that I have made a contribution to the betterment of America,” Fortenberry wrote.

Because of the indictment, he had to surrender his post as the top Republican on an agriculture subcommittee of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. The conviction meant he would no longer be allowed to vote in committees or on the floor of the House.

His resignation means that a special election will be held sometime this spring to elect someone to fill the vacancy. Ricketts is expected to announce details of that on Monday. Candidates for the special election will be selected by the executive committees of each political party.

Meanwhile, there will be a regular primary and general election this year to choose a permanent replacement.

A former Lincoln City Council member, Fortenberry was elected in 2004, emerging from a crowded field of GOP candidates seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., who was retiring.

Fortenberry was viewed as the most independent of Nebraska’s three Republican House members, but he didn’t stray often from the GOP line.

He recently won passage of a bill to increase funding for research and treatment into Lou Gehrig’s disease and was active on agriculture and foreign relations issues. Fortenberry also had a reputation for being hard on staff, according to a staffer who once served on the Hill.

Fortenberry was expected to win re-election easily in 2022 until last October, when he was indicted by a federal grand jury in California as part of an investigation into the political activities of a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury.

Others got rid of donations

Chagoury paid a $1.8 million fine and accepted responsibility for donating $180,000 to four U.S. politicians, including Mitt Romney and then U.S. Rep. Lee Terry.

But unlike the other elected officials, Fortenberry didn’t immediately give away the illicit money his campaign received from Chagoury through a group of Lebanese-Americans in L.A. Instead, Fortenberry, in 2018, asked for a second fundraiser.

In 2019, during two interviews with federal agents, Fortenberry denied any knowledge of the illegal gifts, despite a phone call a year earlier — recorded by the FBI — in which the fundraiser’s host told him at least three times that the donations were not legal. The two interviews prompted the indictment.

Fortenberry has pledged to appeal his conviction. He faces up to five years in prison on each count. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 28.

Plea deals

Chagoury and three other men involved in arranging the conduit political contributions all reached plea deals with federal prosecutors, paying fines and agreeing to cooperate in exchange for avoiding time behind bars.

Dr. Elias Ayoub, a Los Angeles physician who hosted the 2016 fundraiser, also agreed to testify against Fortenberry in hopes of avoiding prosecution. He made the June 2018 phone call in which he told the congressman at least three times — at the urging of FBI agents coaching him — that the $30,000 he received was given to him by an association of Chagoury’s, Toufic Baaklini.

Baaklini headed In Defense of Christians, a group that has worked with Fortenberry on efforts to protect religious minorities in the Middle East.

Fortenberry spoke at the inaugural gala of the Christian group in 2014 and later asked Baaklini if any of his supporters would support the congressman’s campaign financially. That led to the fundraiser in Los Angeles.

A congressional colleague, Rep. Don Bacon, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, said Saturday that he respected “Rep. Fortenberry’s tough, but right decision to resign from his position and wish him and his family the best.”

Flood said in a statement Saturday: “I want to thank Jeff Fortenberry for his many years of honorable service to our district, our state, and our nation. Mandi and I wish Jeff, Celeste, and the entire Fortenberry family nothing but the best, and we will be keeping them in our prayers.”

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 1st District, said Saturday the resignation “opens the door to a new approach” in serving the district.

Rep Adrian Smith, who represents Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District, issued a statement, as well, saying, “This is a difficult time for Jeff and his family, but I know he did the right thing by resigning.”

‘People are often unreasonable’

In his farewell letter to colleagues, he quoted from a poem posted on the wall of Mother Teresa’s office.

“People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Forgive them anyway,” is how it begins.

It ends, “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

Dear Colleguev.6

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttps://sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2021 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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