Judge: Jury can hear Nebraska Rep. Fortenberry’s statements
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s statements to federal authorities about an illegal 2016 campaign contribution can be used against him during his trial, a judge ruled.
The decision issued Wednesday was a setback for the nine-term Nebraska Republican, who is accused of lying to those agents about what he knew about the donation.
Fortenberry was indicted in October after federal authorities alleged that he knowingly made false statements about a $30,000 donation that was funneled to his campaign from a Nigerian billionaire during a Los Angeles fundraiser.
Fortenberry’s lawyers have said Fortenberry cooperated and was telling the truth when he claimed not to know that the donation had come from a foreign donor, in violation of federal law. FBI agents interviewed Fortenberry once in his home in Lincoln and again in Washington, D.C.
Defense lawyers also asked a judge to bar prosecutors from using the statements at trial, arguing that they misled Fortenberry’s first attorney when they told him the congressman was “a subject trending toward a witness” in the case and not a target.
U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld rejected the argument, noting that Fortenberry made the statements voluntarily and with his lawyer present when he was interviewed in Washington. Blumenfeld said Fortenberry also failed to show that prosecutors made a “definite promise” that he wouldn’t face prosecution.
“An ambiguous statement of opinion about (Fortenberry’s) status at that moment in the investigation is not a promise that the government will take, or refrain from taking, specific action if he participates in the interview,” Blumenfeld wrote in his decision.
Prosecutors have said they have recordings of the interviews with Fortenberry as well as secretly recorded phone conversations with government witnesses.
Fortenberry is scheduled to stand trial in Los Angeles on March 15 while trying to ward off a serious Republican primary challenge.
State Sen. Mike Flood, a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, is looking to unseat Fortenberry in the May 10 GOP primary. Flood has won high-profile endorsements from fellow conservatives, including Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman.
The primary winner is expected to face Democratic state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in the Republican-heavy 1st Congressional District, which includes Lincoln and more rural areas in eastern Nebraska.
Fortenberry’s attorneys also unsuccessfully tried to get his trial moved from California to Nebraska, where he likely would have gotten a friendlier jury pool. Blumenfeld rejected that motion as well, siding with prosecutors who argued that the alleged offenses affected their investigation that was centered in Los Angeles.
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