“It has been my honor to serve with you in the United States House of Representatives,” Fortenberry wrote. “It has been my pleasure to call many of you friends. May God bless you as you labor for the good of our country, help those in need, and strive for what is right and just.”
In a statement posted on his website, Fortenberry, who took office in 2005, told his constituents that “due to the difficulties of my current circumstances, I can no longer serve you effectively.”
Fortenberry’s charges stem from a 2016 fundraiser held in Glendale, Calif., for the congressman’s reelection. There, Fortenberry received donations totaling $30,200 from Gilbert Chagoury, a wealthy Nigerian business executive of Lebanese descent who used other people as conduits to make the contributions, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California announced in October.
Foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to candidates running for federal office in the United States. It is also illegal to disguise a donor’s identity through third-party contributions.
Fortenberry was convicted of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Each of the counts carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Felons are eligible to run for and serve in Congress.
Fortenberry’s week-long trial in Los Angeles concluded with a guilty verdict announced after two hours of deliberations on Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
“After learning of illegal contributions to his campaign, the congressman repeatedly chose to conceal the violations of federal law to protect his job, his reputation and his close associates,” U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement Thursday. “The lies in this case threatened the integrity of the American electoral system and were designed to prevent investigators from learning the true source of campaign funds.”
The congressman — who has maintained his innocence since being charged in October — said he planned to appeal the verdict. His defense team had argued that authorities had used deceptive investigative tactics to indict the congressman.
House leadership, however, called for his resignation after the conviction.
“Congressman Fortenberry’s conviction represents a breach of the public trust and confidence in his ability to serve. No one is above the law,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Friday. “Congressman Fortenberry must resign from the House.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also called on him to step down.
Speaking during the House Republicans’ annual retreat in Florida on Friday, McCarthy said Fortenberry “had his day in court.”
“I think if he wants to appeal, he could go do that as a private citizen,” McCarthy said. “But I think when someone’s convicted, it’s time to resign.”
According to court documents, Chagoury, the Nigerian billionaire, and his associates had ties to a nonprofit that fought the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. Federal prosecutors said the trio sought to funnel money to “politicians from less-populous states because the contribution would be more noticeable to the politician and thereby would promote increased donor access.”
Fortenberry, who supported the group’s mission, maintains he knew nothing of the illegal campaign donations.
Twice in 2019, investigators interviewed the congressman about the contributions while secretly recording him — the recordings of which, according to reports by multiple outlets, were played during the trial. According to the indictment, Fortenberry “knowingly and willfully made materially false statements and representations to the FBI and IRS” about the illegal donations.
Yet the congressman has repeatedly painted a different story.
Ahead of the announcement of the indictment, Fortenberry — sitting inside his pickup truck with his wife, Celeste, and their dog — said in a YouTube video that “a person from overseas illegally moved money to my campaign,” adding that he “didn’t know anything about this.”
Fortenberry said he had told everything he knew to the FBI agents. The charges brought against him came as a shock, he said.
“I feel so personally betrayed,” he said. “We thought we were trying to help.”
The GOP primary for Nebraska’s 1st District currently has at least four other contenders, including Nebraska state Sen. Mike Flood (R), who mounted a strong challenge to Fortenberry after news of the indictment broke last October. The winner of the primary will likely face state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (D). The district is heavily Republican.
Pansing Brooks told the AP Friday that Fortenberry’s conviction was a “wake-up call” and that Nebraska is likely “to be the brunt of some jokes” because of it.