Nebraska U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he lied to federal agents who were investigating illegal contributions to his campaign, and prosecutors say they plan to call a top aide to the Republican congressman as a trial witness. Fortenberry made his initial appearance in federal court in Los Angeles via an online video-chatting service. A judge ordered him to post a $50,000 bond and told him not to have any contact with prosecution witnesses outside of his attorney’s presence, but allowed him to avoid spending time in jail while the case proceeds.
Prosecutors also revealed that they plan to call Fortenberry’s longtime chief of staff, Dr. William “Reyn” Archer III, as one of at least eight witnesses.
Fortenberry's attorneys, meanwhile, said they will file motions to suppress statements the congressman made “because he was misled” and to disqualify the case's lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins, because they plan to call him as a witness. They also said they will seek to dismiss the charges for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that the alleged offenses filed in California took place in Nebraska and Washington, D.C.
Jenkins said Fortenberry violated his oath of office “in a disturbing way, by repeatedly lying” to federal agents who were investigating illegal campaign contributions.
“This is about an investigation that goes to the heart of our democracy,” Jenkins said.
Fortenberry was indicted Tuesday on allegations that he lied to the FBI and concealed information from federal agents who were investigating campaign contributions funnel to him from a Nigerian billionaire.
The nine-term congressman faces one charge of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. The indictment stems from an FBI investigation into $180,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.
The contributions were funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016 and went to four U.S. politicians, including $30,200 to Fortenberry in 2016.
Fortenberry’s attorney, John Littrell, said prosecutors are tarnishing his client’s reputation with accusations that are “very grave, very serious, something that is very out of character."
Fortenberry was first elected to the 1st Congressional District in 2004. Redistricting last month reduced the district’s Republican makeup, but Fortenberry is still likely a strong favorite to win a 10th term if he runs again, and so far, no Democrat has announced plans to challenge him.
Back in Nebraska, local Republicans voiced support Wednesday for the nine-term congressman. Former President Donald Trump weighed in a well, seeking to paint the charges against Fortenberry as unfair.
“Isn’t it terrible that a Republican Congressman from Nebraska just got indicted for possibly telling some lies to investigators about campaign contributions,” Trump said in a statement, before pivoting to his own grievances against political opponents. “Is there no justice in this country?”
Jonn Orr, a longtime party activist who has known Fortenberry for 30 years, said he was surprised by the charges and suspects they're politically motivated.
“This whole thing seems way out of character” for Fortenberry, Orr said. “He has always very forthright, very honest, never evasive.”
Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning, a former chief of staff for Fortenberry, said the congressman has earned the public’s trust through hard work and policy leadership.
“I’ve always known him to approach the job with the utmost respect for the dignity of the office and its ethical obligations, which makes these charges incomprehensible,” Moenning said.
Fortenberry’s House counterparts, Republicans Don Bacon and Adrian Smith, both released statements in support of their Nebraska colleague but stopped short of disputing the charges. Smith said he didn’t want to rush to judgment and described Fortenberry as “committed to serving Nebraskans, and I am confident that commitment has not wavered.”