LINCOLN — A California judge has rejected a request from U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry to move his trial, for allegedly lying to federal agents, to Nebraska.

Fortenberry’s trial date was also rescheduled and will now begin March 15 in U.S. District Court in the central district of California.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld, in rulings made available Monday, said holding the trial in Nebraska would be just as expensive as one in California. He also said that a Nebraska trial wouldn’t happen any sooner and that a new judge in Nebraska would have to become acquainted with the case.

As soon as possible

Fortenberry’s defense attorneys had argued that a trial in Nebraska could happen sooner, since U.S. District Court in California has a clogged docket. 

They have sought a trial as soon as possible, in hopes of clearing the congressman’s name quickly since he faces a contested primary vote in May.

They also maintained that holding the trial in California is a hardship for Fortenberry, who lives in Lincoln and has represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005.

Fortenberry and his lawyers have additionally claimed that he is the victim of a political prosecution and that facing a jury in a state dominated by Democrats would be unfair.  

Blumenfeld’s orders did not mention any political factors. During a hearing Friday, he told lawyers he would not be influenced by “noise” associated with the case but would focus on the legal issues.

Suspension of trials lifted

Fortenberry’s trial had been scheduled to begin Feb. 15 in California, but COVID-19 restrictions had left that date in peril. Just recently, a suspension of trials in California was lifted, effective Feb. 22.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office have argued against moving the trial, calling it “venue shopping” by Fortenberry’s team. They also pointed out that the federal investigation that ensnarled Fortenberry began in California.

The congressman, 60, is charged with two counts of lying to federal agents and one court of attempting to conceal facts from those agents.

The FBI had opened an investigation into illegal “conduit” campaign contributions given to Fortenberry and a handful of other American politicians by Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire living in Paris.

Fortenberry knew Chagoury and had dined with him in Paris. The two shared a concern about the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East. 

The congressman said any alleged misstatements to federal investigators were caused by a lapse in memory. He has also claimed he was “set up” by FBI agents and prosecutors because he was a Republican, a claim denied by prosecutors.

State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk is contesting Fortenberry in the GOP primary.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: [email protected] Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Mike Flood is the founder and an owner of Flood Communications and News Channel Nebraska. All stories about him and any declared candidates in the Nebraska First Congressional District race during the remainder of his campaign and/or ensuing tenure in office have been and will be written by outside media outlets.