Jury selected in Congressman Fortenberry’s trial in L.A.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. (KOLN) - A jury has been selected in the trial for Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry in Los Angeles Wednesday. That group of 12 will be tasked with deciding if Fortenberry lied to the FBI, which could come with prison time.
The jury selection process was intense and extremely lengthy. It took so long that the judge decided to hold off on opening statements until Thursday morning.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry walked out of his first day on trial hand-in-hand with his wife, Celeste, and five daughters. They were smiling, but didn’t comment on the eight hours of jury selection that took place.
The prosecution and defense selected ten women and five men to serve as jurors and alternate jurors. A majority of them said they had never heard of Rep. Fortenberry.
The judge asked detailed questions about the potential jurors’ jobs - ranging from actress to grocery store clerk, data scientists and more. He asked about their experiences with law enforcement and took a particularly close look at potential political biases.
Those who were dismissed from the panel quickly had made comments about distrusting all politicians or “not liking” members of the Republican party.
Political opinions of the jurors has been a concern of Rep. Fortenberry’s defense since early on in the trial. It was part of why they didn’t want the proceedings to take place in Los Angeles. But by the end of the day, both sides said they were satisfied with the jury make-up.
Opening statements will begin Thursday morning and estimated to take just over an hour between the two sides. Then they will start calling witnesses. The prosecution has said their first witness will be a special agent with the FBI.
Reporters, including 10/11′s Bayley Bischof, will have access to the courtroom Thursday and for the rest of the trial. We will also continue to have a sketch artist capturing the action since cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom.
Fortenberry is accused of accepting money from a foreign national for his 2016 campaign and then lying to the FBI in their investigation into foreign donations. Fortenberry is charged with one count of scheming to falsify or conceal material facts and two counts of making a false statement to a government agency. Each felony charge comes with a maximum penalty of five years.
Court documents allege Fortenberry’s campaign received a $30,000 contribution from Nigerian foreign national Gilbert Chagoury, funneled through U.S. citizens, including Toufic Baaklini and someone only identified as Individual H. According to the documents, Baaklini and Individual H hosted a fundraiser for Fortenberry in Los Angeles, where a handful of people donated the $30,000 believed to be from Chagoury under their own names.
The government is accusing Fortenberry of then lying to FBI agents about his knowledge of the contributions in two 2019 interviews, in which Fortenberry “repeatedly and falsely denied knowing about any illegal conduit contributions to his campaign, including after being specifically asked about Individual H and Baaklini.”
Chagoury has admitted to making campaign contributions and accepted a plea deal in 2021.
Fortenberry has pled not guilty, and has said he believes the accusations to be politically motivated. In a video he posted to YouTube when the indictment dropped, he said “They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me for this. We’re shocked. We’re stunned. I feel so personally betrayed. I thought we were trying to help and now we will have to fight.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office is expected to call seven witnesses, including Baaklini and Individual H. Alexandra Kendrick, who served as Fortenberry’s campaign fundraising manager in 2016 is also on the witness list. Documents allege she warned Fortenberry that the contributions could be coming from foreign nationals. The trial memo also lists several video and audio recordings of conversations with Fortenberry they plan to introduce.
A spokesperson for Rep. Fortenberry’s campaign released the following statement to 10/11.
“California prosecutors knew Rep. Jeff Fortenberry had no information about illegal contributions to his campaign and have produced no evidence that he did. Rather than enlist his help as the victim of these illegal contributions, which other prosecutors have done in similar investigations of both Republican and Democrat officials, they set Fortenberry up by directing an informant to feed him that information with the intention of trying to prosecute him.
“This case centers on an approximately 10 minute-long phone call prosecutors directed their informant to make to Jeff Fortenberry to implant information with him they knew he did not have. FBI agents then used false pretenses to interview Fortenberry in his home nearly a year later and when he failed to recall the details of the brief call to their satisfaction, California prosecutors moved to indict him – something the FBI’s own materials show they planned to do before the interview even took place.
“Jeff Fortenberry has always had great faith in the American people’s ability to judge what is fair and just. When the jury hears the facts in this case, they will recognize his innocence.”
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