Former GOP Rep. Fortenberry’s Conviction Overturned

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), who had been found guilty in March 2022 of lying to the FBI about an illegal campaign contribution.

In June 2022, Fortenberry was sentenced in Los Angeles by U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld for his false statements during an investigation into a $30,200 donation from a Nigerian businessman at a 2016 fundraiser.

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously decided that Fortenberry’s trial was held in an inappropriate venue, as the alleged crime did not occur in the state where the trial was conducted. The ruling is based on the constitutional requirement that a federal criminal defendant be tried in the district where the alleged criminal conduct occurred.

Writing for the panel, U.S. District Judge James Donato stated, “Fortenberry’s trial took place in a state where no charged crime was committed and before a jury drawn from the vicinage of the federal agencies that investigated the defendant.” He added, “The Constitution does not permit this. Fortenberry’s convictions are reversed so that he may be retried, if at all, in a proper venue.”

The ruling raises questions about the broader implications for cases where venue and jurisdiction are disputed. Donato’s assertion that an “effects-based test” for the venue of prosecution for false statements to federal agents lacks support in the Constitution or historical practice. The effects-based test argued for by the Department of Justice (DOJ) would allow for prosecution in any district where the “effects” of a false statement are implicated.

Fortenberry responded to the ruling with a sense of gratitude: “We are gratified by the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Celeste and I would like to thank everyone who has stood by us and supported us with their kindness and friendship.” He faced a significant personal toll from the wrongfully prosecuted case, as he resigned from his congressional seat following his conviction. He was first elected to the House in 2004.

Tuesday’s ruling does not preclude a retrial, leaving open the possibility that the DOJ could force him to face another trial in the proper district. Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, told reporters that the DOJ is evaluating the appropriate next steps, if any, in the case.