Attorneys for indicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry accused federal investigators Monday of bias and of withholding information from the defense as it prepares for his trial for allegedly lying to the FBI.
In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, Fortenberry's lawyers asked a judge to force prosecutors to disclose what promises they made to a key informant in the case, and whether they complied with their own policies when investigating a member of Congress.
The court filing also accused the lead FBI investigator in the case of "anti-Muslim" and "anti-Arab" bias that might have led to "hostility" toward Fortenberry, who has worked to help religious minorities in the Middle East.
The motion included two drawings of armor-clad crusaders attacking Muslims that defense attorneys claim were liked or shared online by Special Agent Todd Carter. One was titled: "Dealing with Muslims. They got it right the first time."
Fortenberry’s motion describes him as a “legislative leader on Middle Eastern affairs” who has long been engaged with Muslim and Arab groups, and asks that internal communications between investigators be provided to determine if he was targeted “out of spite.” Fortenberry also represents the nation’s largest Yazidi community in Lincoln, a group he fought to protect from slaughter by the Islamic State during the war in Iraq.
An FBI spokesman said Tuesday that the agency would have no comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles did not return requests for comment on Monday. In the past, that office has declined to comment and said its response will be in court filings.
Monday's motion is the latest salvo in the exchange of legal filings by prosecutors and defense attorneys as Fortenberry battles for his political future.
Fortenberry, 60, has represented eastern Nebraska's 1st District since 2005 and was expected to easily win reelection in 2022. He, his wife and his attorneys maintain that he was "set up" and misled by federal agents. They said he was trying to cooperate with the investigation of illegal "conduit" campaign contributions that originated from a Nigerian billionaire living in Paris.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, contend that the congressman repeatedly lied about the origins of $30,000 in donations he received from a group of Lebanese Americans at a Los Angeles fundraiser in 2016. The money was funneled to the group from Gilbert Chagoury, who paid a $1.8 million fine for making $230,000 in illegal contributions and loans to American politicians. Chagoury also agreed to aid the FBI investigation.
Federal prosecutors said Fortenberry, instead of immediately disposing of his $30,000 in donations, requested a second L.A. fundraiser in 2018. But he was informed by the organizer of the event — known only as "Individual H" — that the 2016 gifts were illegal because they originated from a foreign national. Individual H was cooperating with the FBI at that time.
Fortenberry maintains that he couldn't recall the details of that 2018 phone call when questioned twice by federal investigators in 2019. He was indicted on three felonies — two counts of lying to federal agents and one count of trying to conceal material facts.
A trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 15, though Fortenberry's attorneys have filed motions to get the charges dismissed or the case moved out of California.
In the latest motions, defense attorneys are seeking to know what deals were made with Individual H for his cooperation. Individual H was not charged in the scheme, though, according to the prosecution, he was the person who set up the L.A. fundraiser, accepted the $30,000 from an associate of Chagoury's and later told Fortenberry that money had come from the Nigerian.
Fortenberry's attorneys also claim that FBI agents "deliberately lied" to the congressman to gain entrance to his home for a March 2019 interview. They falsely claimed that they were from the Omaha FBI office and that they were investigating a matter of "national security," according to Monday's court filing.
Prosecutors, in previous court documents, have rejected many of the claims made in Monday's motion. They have also said they do not, at this time, have to share some of the information being sought by Fortenberry's lawyers because it is “work product” and a decision on who will testify at trial has not yet been made.