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Indicted Congressman Blames Lying Charges on Spotty Cell Service

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Indicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) may have just staked his political career—and possibly his freedom—on a tried-and-true excuse: Bad cell phone reception.

Attorneys for Fortenberry, who on Thursday became the first sitting member of Congress to stand trial in 21 years, told a federal jury that what the government calls lying to the FBI could boil down to a misunderstanding stemming from “a bad cell phone connection.”

The government’s case against the nine-term Republican hangs largely on that phone call, which a cooperating informant recorded in 2018. In that nine-minute conversation, the informant—a Fortenberry donor—told the congressman that $30,200 in campaign contributions at a Los Angeles fundraiser “probably” came from an illegal source: a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Fortenberry knew and had met at least twice.

While Fortenberry had several “off-ramps” to admit his knowledge, prosecutors told jurors, he chose instead to lie. The Nebraska conservative now stands trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, where he faces three felony charges related to misleading the government, each carrying a maximum sentence of five years.

“This is a case about choices, a series of choices that the defendant made that led him down an illegal path of lies and deception,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Jamari Buxton said in his opening remarks.

The defense, however—casting itself to the jury as “guardians of Congressman Fortenberry’s liberty”—countered that Fortenberry’s statements were less about deception, and more about reception, appealing to jurors’ own experience with spotty cell service.

Defense attorney Glen Summers said Fortenberry made “one small mistake,” chalked up possibly to something he “misheard over a bad cell phone connection.”

Summers argued the claim in question—that the contributions “probably did come from” the foreign billionaire—was just “one very vague statement” made to Fortenberry during the recorded call. And the congressman, Summers said, goes “on autopilot” during fundraising chats, a state of mind that lends to distraction, where even a small glitch in the call could have warped his understanding.

“They assume that he heard it, that it registered, and that he remembered it about a year later,” the attorney told the jury. (The judge previously blocked the defense’s request to call a memory expert at trial.)

“He never lied to the agents,” Summers said,........

© The Daily Beast

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