Fortenberry already faced serious opposition in the May Republican primary from state Sen. Mike Flood, a former speaker of the state’s unicameral legislature who has endorsements from Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman, while Democrats are fielding state Sen. Patty Pansing. Candidate filing closed weeks ago, so it’s too late for anyone else to run following the congressman’s conviction.
Fortenberry had always decisively won re-election, and he appeared to be on track for another easy victory until he was indicted in October. Prosecutors argued that Chagoury had used straw donors to illegally funnel $180,000 to four different Republican candidates, including $30,000 to Fortenberry’s 2016 campaign; Chagoury, who became close to Fortenberry because of their mutual support for oppressed Christians in the Middle East, agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine in 2021 but avoided jail time.
Federal investigators say that the other three candidates quickly disposed of Chagoury’s contributions after they were informed that they’d come from an illegal source, but the Nebraskan instead kept the money for two-and-a-half years and “repeatedly chose to conceal the violations of federal law to protect his job, his reputation, and his close associates,” according to prosecutors.
In arguments to the jury, prosecutors said that Chagoury placed $30,000 in cash in a bag and gave it to an ally named Toufic Baaklini, who passed it to Los Angeles doctor Eli Ayoub. Ayoub, they argued, then distributed that cash to his relatives and had them write checks to Fortenberry’s campaign in order to conceal the money’s true origin. Prosecutors also played a recording of a 2018 call secretly taped by the FBI in which Ayoub was heard telling the congressman that he’d received the money from Baaklini and believed that it “probably came from Chagoury.” Despite being told of the funds’ questionable origin, prosecutors pointed out, Fortenberry didn’t disclose this information to the authorities afterward.
Instead, investigators charged, Fortenberry “lied to and misled authorities” twice during their probe that unfolded the following year. They said Fortenberry had falsely told them that he’d ended that call with Ayoub after he’d made a “concerning comment,” when in fact he’d continued the conversation by asking Ayoub to hold another fundraiser on his behalf.
If Fortenberry doesn’t resign, it would take a two-thirds majority of the House to vote to expel him from office. The last time this happened was 2002, when Democratic Rep. James Traficant of Ohio was ejected by his colleagues three months after he was found guilty on corruption charges. (Traficant tried to regain his seat that year from prison by running as an independent but ended up taking third with 15%.)
Until his indictment, Fortenberry was best known nationally for a 2018 incident in which his chief of staff tried to threaten the job of a local professor who in 2018 “liked” a Facebook post featuring a photo of a campaign sign that had been doctored to give the candidate googly eyes and rename him “Fartenberry.”