Over the last five years, only two sitting members of Congress faced federal criminal charges: In August 2018, Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York was arrested for alleged insider trading, and soon after, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California was accused by federal prosecutors of having stolen more than a quarter million dollars from his campaign coffers.
Both initially claimed they were victims of political persecution; both later resigned in disgrace; both were sentenced to prison; and both received pardons from Donald Trump.
Yesterday, the list grew a little longer when Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska was charged with lying to the FBI about contributions to his 2016 re-election campaign from a foreign billionaire. NBC News reported late yesterday:
A federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Fortenberry, 60, on one count of "scheming to falsify and conceal material facts" and two counts of lying to federal investigators, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California said in a statement Tuesday. Each charge carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
As we discussed yesterday, the GOP congressman realized the charges were inevitable and tried to get ahead of them, releasing a YouTube video insisting he had not lied to the FBI.
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.
The Justice Department's statement on the charges also pointed to an alleged scheme "in which Fortenberry, after learning this information, 'knowingly and willfully falsified, concealed, and covered up by trick, scheme, and device material facts' about the illegal campaign contributions."
The Nebraskan will reportedly appear for an arraignment today in a federal court in Los Angeles.
As best as I can tell, there's been no discussion about Fortenberry resigning — on the contrary, the lawmaker has vowed to fight the charges — but under House rules, the criminal allegations will force the congressman to step down as the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee's agriculture panel.
GOP leaders could take additional steps, but as of this morning, they've given no indications that they plan to do so.
As for the 2022 midterms, it's not yet clear whether Fortenberry will run for another term, though recent history offers a relevant hint: After their respective criminal indictments, Collins and Hunter ran for re-election, and Republican voters sent them back to Capitol Hill anyway.
Of course, if the Fortenberry controversy follows a similar trajectory, he's less likely to benefit from a presidential pardon, now that Trump is unable to hand them out as party favors to his political allies. That said, the former president nevertheless issued a statement of support for the Nebraskan last night, saying, "Isn't it terrible that a Republican Congressman from Nebraska just got indicted for possibly telling some lies to investigators about campaign contributions, when half of the United States Congress lied about made up scams."
That's probably not the message Fortenberry and his defense attorneys will be pushing as the legal process unfolds.