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Political insiders split on potential fallout from possible Fortenberry indictment

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At least two leading Republicans in Nebraska defended U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, while the head of the Democratic Party said he violated the trust of voters, after the congressman said he expects to be indicted for lying to FBI investigators.

Fortenberry has said the allegations, linked to a federal investigation into illegal campaign contributions from a Nigerian billionaire, are untrue and a betrayal after he cooperated with the FBI.

Knowingly lying to federal investigators is a felony. An indictment may be coming as soon as Tuesday.

"I do have a very difficult time believing the allegations. It would be very out of character for him," said Spray, who has known Fortenberry since he was a member of the Lincoln City Council, prior to his election to Congress.

"Jeff is a man of integrity," added Mark Fahleson, a former chair of the Nebraska Republican Party.

But Jane Kleeb, who chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party, said that the "reported lies violate the trust of Nebraskans, only confirming that the swamp Trump promised to drain is actually the Republican Party.”

The reputational hit could open up the possibility of a challenge from another Republican in the 2022 primary, according to several political observers.

The anticipated indictment grew out of an FBI investigation, launched in California during the Trump administration, regarding $180,000 in illegal “conduit” campaign contributions from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.

The contributions, funneled through a group of Californians from 2012 through 2016, went to four U.S. politicians, including $30,200 to Fortenberry in 2016 and $10,000 to then-Rep. Lee Terry, who represented the Omaha area, in 2014.

Fortenberry apparently isn’t in trouble for receiving the contributions; his campaign has said he was unaware that the money came from Chagoury. Instead, the congressman faces prosecution because of what he told or did not tell agents during their investigation into Chagoury’s scheme.

Donations from foreigners to American campaigns are illegal.

“I told them what I knew and what I understood,” he said. “They’ve accused me of lying to them and are charging me with this.”

Josh Moenning, a former chief of staff for Fortenberry, said the congressman was a "good man and an effective and tireless advocate for the people" in his district. 

"I've known him to show only the highest level of regard for the law and every obligation that comes with being an elected official," said Moenning, who was elected mayor of Norfolk in 2016 and re-elected in 2020. "Nebraskans continue to elect him, in lopsided margins, because they know him, trust him, and respect his work on their behalf."

Nebraska's 1st Congressional District, with recently redrawn boundaries, includes Bellevue, Offutt Air Force Base, La Vista and the bulk of Papillion in Sarpy County. The district also includes all or part of 11 other counties in eastern Nebraska, including Lancaster County.

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