Jurors selected for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s trial

LOS ANGELES (Nebraska Examiner) — Jurors underwent an extensive interrogation about their political biases during jury selection Wednesday in the federal trial of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

A jury of eight women and four men was ultimately selected, but only after several jurors were dismissed for admitting to a judge that they didn’t trust what politicians said and felt like they talked down to regular people.

“No offense,” one man said, “but I like people who are blunt and upfront and honest. … Politicians spend more of their time not telling the truth.”

Court adjourned for the day before opening arguments could be made in the trial of Fortenberry, a 61-year-old Republican who has represented Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District since 2005.

In October, he was indicted on three felony charges: two counts of making false statements to federal agents and one count of seeking to cover up an illegal campaign contribution by failing to amend his federal campaign spending report.

The Republican congressman has pleaded not guilty to all counts, and his attorneys maintain that he was “set up” by federal agents who were probing illegal “conduit” political contributions that Fortenberry and a handful of other U.S. politicians received from Gilbert Chagoury. Chagoury is a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire who lives in Paris and shared an interest with Fortenberry about the welfare of minority Christians groups in the Middle East.

Federal prosecutors maintain that the congressman lied repeatedly to them about the origin of $30,200 he had received from a group of Lebanese-Americans in Los Angeles for his 2016 campaign.

Fortenberry’s defense attorneys claim that he didn’t recall what he’d been told in a 2018 phone call, recorded by the FBI, by a host of that fundraiser — that the funds “probably” originated from Chagoury.

Fortenberry is fighting for his political life as he faces a tough GOP primary challenge from State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk.

Two leading Republicans, Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman — who often disagree — have both endorsed Flood in the belief that Fortenberry’s legal troubles leave the 1st District vulnerable to a Democrat.

The trial is expected to continue into next week. The setting is a glass-encased federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles that has hosted cases involving celebrities like Katy Perry, Paris Hilton and Elon Musk.

Thirty-six prospective jurors were questioned by U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld in an effort to find a panel of 12, as well as three alternatives, who could be fair and impartial.

Each juror was asked the same questions, but two themes emerged:

  • Do you have political biases, or biases against politicians, that would prevent you from being a fair juror?
  • Do you find the FBI and law enforcement credible or not?

Fortenberry’s attorneys had tried, unsuccessfully, to move the trial to Nebraska, fearing that a jury in deep blue California would not be fair to a congressman from a solidly red state. They have also questioned the motives of federal investigators.

At one point during jury selection, Fortenberry’s lead attorney, John Littrell, asked the judge to quiz prospective jurors about whether they held “biases against Republicans.” Littrell said it appeared that jurors were reluctant to say that.

That drew a rebuke from Blumenfeld, who said Littrell had “mischaracterized” what was being said in court and told him to “move on.”

The questions posed to jurors specifically stated that they should not provide their “political affiliation.”

But some jurors, under questioning by the judge, admitted that they didn’t trust Democrats or didn’t believe Republicans.

Those who admitted that they couldn’t be fair and objective because of their political beliefs were stricken from the jury pool.

There was a moment of levity during jury selection as one young woman admitted that she had memory problems because she had “smoked a lot of weed” when she was in high school. She was bumped from serving on the jury.

Fortenberry, dressed in a dark suit, sat quietly during court proceedings, mostly looking down at a computer monitor or glancing at the judge from time to time. Only a couple of times did his team of four lawyers consult with the congressman, and that happened as the final jury panel was being selected.

Fortenberry’s wife, Celeste, sat in the front row of the courtroom and has been named as a potential witness for the defense. Alongside her were several of the couple’s daughters. The congressman gave them a hearty hug before the final segment of court.

Thursday will begin with opening statements from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The first witnesses to take the stand are expected to be the FBI agent that led the investigation into Chagoury’s activities and Toufic Baaklini, an associate of Chagoury’s who forwarded the money that was given to Fortenberry.

Baaklini, at the time, was head of a group called In Defense of Christians. He, along with Chagoury, befriended Fortenberry over their shared interest in helping Christians being persecuted in the Middle East. According to prosecutors, Fortenberry had asked Baaklini if some of his supporters would give to his 2016 campaign.

Chagoury ultimately agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine for $180,000 in donations he gave to a handful of U.S. politicians, including Fortenberry, former Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.

Terry has said he gave away the money he got from Chagoury shortly after he learned of its origin.

In contrast, federal agents contend that Fortenberry was asking Baaklini for a second fundraiser in 2018, even after he knew that the 2016 gifts likely came from a foreigner.

He gave the contributions to charity in 2019, after two interviews with federal agents about his knowledge of the political donations.

Baaklini and the host of the L.A. fundraiser, Dr. Eli Ayoub, also reached plea deals and agreed to cooperate with investigators. They are expected to testify.

Only six reporters were admitted into the courtroom, with others being told to watch via a video feed from an overflow room.

Court officials said the restrictions were due to COVID-19 precautions.

While there is no mask mandate in the courthouse, about half of the jurors wore face masks.

Jurors were spread out, with empty seats between them, in the jury box and in part of the gallery, thus limiting the available seats for journalists and about a dozen spectators.

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