Attorneys for indicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry continued on the offensive, filing a new pre-trial motion late Tuesday claiming that a lead prosecutor misled the veteran congressman into making incriminating statements.
Lawyers are seeking to throw out statements Fortenberry made to federal investigators in March and July of 2019. In those interviews, prosecutors maintain the Republican lawmaker lied about whether he'd received illegal political contributions from a foreign national for his 2016 reelection campaign.
In their motion to suppress, defense attorneys claim that Fortenberry would not have talked to FBI agents if it were not for the lead prosecutor's assurance that the congressman was not a "target" of their investigation, but merely a "subject," trending toward becoming only a "witness" concerning the illegal contributions.
When Fortenberry became concerned about "accusatory" questions from federal investigators during the July 2019 interview, his then-attorney, former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, asked lead prosecutor Mack Jenkins if the interview was "a set-up for a 'bulls**t 1001.'" That is a reference to a federal law that makes it a crime to knowingly or willingly make false statements to federal agents.
Gowdy, according to court documents, said he relied on Jenkins' assurances that it wasn't, and allowed Fortenberry to continue talking to federal investigators.
Defense attorneys also allege that internal FBI documents show that prosecutors were already planning to charge Fortenberry prior to their interviews in 2019, thus he was a "target" of their probe.
"Congressman Fortenberry’s trust in the government was misplaced," the new motion states. "As a result of Congressman Fortenberry’s desire to help the FBI in its investigation, he is now the defendant in a baseless prosecution under (U.S. Code, Section) 1001."
A campaign spokesman for Fortenberry, Chad Kolton, said the latest motion shows "a consistent pattern of deceit" from prosecutors based in California.
Federal prosecutors in California, where the investigation of the illegal contributions was launched, have dismissed those accusations, saying that they have recorded phone calls and interviews in which Fortenberry lied to and misled investigators.
They maintain that instead of seeking to "disgorge" the contributions when Fortenberry was told they were illegal, he requested another fundraiser in 2018 by the Lebanese American group that gave them back in 2016.
The latest defense motion is one of several filed by Fortenberry's attorneys as the congressman, who has represented eastern Nebraska's 1st Congressional district since 2005, fights for his political future.
Before he was indicted on Oct. 19, Fortenberry and his wife released a pre-recorded video in which they said that he didn't lie but was the victim of a set up.
More recently, Celeste Fortenberry has asked for donations to finance her husband's legal battle, saying that he is a victim of a political prosecution.
The campaign donations originated from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire with family ties to Lebanon who lives in Paris. It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate to U.S. political campaigns, either directly, or through third-parties, as it alleged in the Fortenberry case.
Chagoury agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine and cooperate with a federal investigation after he gave $180,000 in political donations to four American politicians, including Fortenberry and former U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha, and provided a $50,000 loan to then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. LaHood repaid the loan and Terry has said he gave to charity the $5,200 he had received as soon as he knew the donations were illegal.
Fortenberry also gave away the $30,000 to charities, but he didn't take that action until more than a year after federal prosecutors say he was told the contributions "probably" came from a foreigner.
The congressman remains in office, but under House rules concerning representatives under indictment, he has temporarily relinquished his duties on House committees.