A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out the conviction of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, arguing that his trial should never have been held in Los Angeles in the first place.
Fortenberry, 62, was convicted by a jury in March 2022 of three felonies related to lying to federal authorities about illegal campaign donations he received at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.
During interviews at his home in Nebraska and at his attorney's office in Washington, D.C., he told federal investigators that he did not know that $30,000 in donations came from a Lebanese Nigerian billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury. As a foreign citizen he was not eligible to contribute to an American candidate. But an FBI agent had previously listened to a phone call in which a cooperating witness told the congressman about the origin of the funds.
In Tuesday's opinion, a three-judge panel determined that Mr. Fortenberry should not have been tried in Los Angeles because he had made his statements about campaign contributions to federal agents in Nebraska and Washington, DC. Mr. Fortenberry was charged and convicted of making false statements, not receiving illegal contributions.
“The Constitution clearly requires that a criminal defendant be tried in the place where the criminal conduct occurred,” Judge James Donato wrote on behalf of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The court said Mr. Fortenberry could be tried again in a suitable venue.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, said in a statement that a new trial was possible.
“We are evaluating possible next steps before deciding how best to move forward,” he said.
In a statement provided by his attorney, Mr. Fortenberry said on behalf of himself and his wife: “We are pleased with the Ninth Circuit's decision. Celeste and I want to thank everyone who supported us with their kindness and friendship.”
Fortenberry, who was first elected to Congress in 2004, resigned days after his conviction. Nebraska's Republican governor and colleagues from both parties, including Representative Kevin McCarthy, who was the minority leader, and Representative Nancy Pelosi, who was the speaker of the House of Representatives, had urged him to do so.
In June 2022, Fortenberry was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and perform 320 hours of community service.
The Nigerian billionaire in question, Gilbert Chagoury, has paid $1.8 million in fines to the US government for making improper donations to various campaigns.
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