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Appeals court overturns conviction of former Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry

Fortenberry and his wife welcomed Tuesday’s decision. In a statement to the Associated Press, Fortenberry said “we are pleased with the Ninth Circuit’s decision” and “Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has supported us and supported us with their kindness and friendship.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal prosecutors allege that Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian-Lebanese businessman living in Paris, gave Fortenberry a $30,000 campaign contribution during a 2016 Los Angeles fundraiser through donors straw. The organizer of that fundraiser, Elias Ayoub, became a cooperating witness with the FBI and informed Fortenberry of the source of the funds in a 2018 recorded phone call by investigators.

But in 2019, Fortenberry denied knowledge of any foreign campaign contributions when approached by federal investigators in Nebraska and Washington, DC. Fortenberry was charged in 2021 with making false statements to investigators and conspiracy to falsify and conceal material facts. Federal prosecutors insisted that the Nebraska lawmaker be tried in Los Angeles, pointing out that the illegal contributions were made there, although he was never accused of receiving illegal contributions.

Fortenberry was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was not completely unexpected. During oral arguments in July, Judge James Donato, one of three judges reviewing Fortenberry’s case and the author of Tuesday’s ruling, indicated support for lawmakers’ arguments that the Justice Department had violated his rights by trying him in Los Angeles.

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