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Jury finds Republican congressman guilty of multiple felonies

It’s not every day when a sitting member of Congress is convicted of several felonies. It’s unclear whether he’ll run for re-election anyway.


It’s not every day when a sitting member of Congress faces a criminal trial. It’s even more unusual when an incumbent lawmaker is convicted of several felonies, but as NBC News reported, that’s precisely what happened yesterday.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was convicted Thursday of lying to federal authorities about an illegal campaign contribution in 2016 from a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire. A federal jury in Los Angeles found Fortenberry, who is in his ninth term, guilty of one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

The convicted congressman intends to appeal the outcome. Nevertheless, a judge set Fortenberry’s sentencing for June 28, and he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison for each count, as well as possible fines.

Before taking a look at the bigger picture, let’s quickly review how we arrived at this point. Circling back to our earlier coverage, the case stems from an FBI investigation into illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. His donations were reportedly funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016, and went to several politicians, including Fortenberry.

Members of Congress cannot, of course, accept foreign funds for their campaigns, but in this case, that’s not the principal problem: The Nebraskan and his team have said they didn’t realize the $30,200 in contributions he received at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016 came from a Nigerian billionaire. The congressman later donated the money to local charities.

Rather, according to federal prosecutors, Fortenberry “repeatedly lied to and misled authorities“ as part of the investigation into Chagoury’s scheme.

Image: Jeff Fortenberry
Jeff Fortenberry arrives at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, on March 16, 2022.Jae C. Hong / AP

The GOP lawmaker’s defense team tried to blame this on a misunderstanding caused by “a bad cell phone connection,” though jurors evidently didn’t find this persuasive.

The Lincoln Journal Star noted that Fortenberry is “the highest-ranking elected official to be convicted of a felony in Nebraska history.”

Aside from sentencing, the next question is what becomes of the congressman’s re-election plans.

Oddly enough, there is no rule that will require Fortenberry to resign. On the contrary, it wasn’t long after he was criminally indicted when the Republican announced that he’d run for re-election anyway, which was notable in its own right. Traditionally, members of Congress facing serious legal difficulties like these would focus less on campaigning and more on their legal defense. It is, after all, challenging for an incumbent politician to effectively tell voters, “Vote for me — and pay no attention to those pesky felony charges.”

Now, that’s become even more difficult: If Fortenberry proceeds with his plans, he’ll have to effectively tell voters, “Vote for me — and pay no attention to those pesky felony convictions.”

That said, as of this morning, Fortenberry is still a candidate. The Lincoln Journal Star report added: “It is unclear whether Fortenberry’s campaign will continue. He faces a Republican challenger in the May primary.... Asked if he would continue his campaign, Fortenberry said his family is going to sit down and evaluate next steps.”

Note, it was just a couple of election cycles ago when two incumbent House Republicans — New York’s Chris Collins and California’s Duncan Hunter — faced multi-count felony indictments, ran for re-election anyway, and won. They were later convicted, sentenced to prison, and pardoned by Donald Trump.

That said, neither was found guilty before Election Day. Fortenberry’s position, in other words, is worse.

Watch this space.