OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A race to replace disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska remained surprisingly tight Tuesday despite GOP dominance in his congressional district, which hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1964.
Republican Mike Flood held a narrow lead over fellow state lawmaker, Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks, as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, as counties in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District continued to report results.
The special election coincided with the sentencing of Fortenberry, who resigned in March after a California jury found him guilty of lying to FBI agents about an illegal, $30,000 donation to his campaign from a Nigerian billionaire.
Fortenberry of Nebraska was given two years of probation, a $25,000 fine and ordered to complete community service for misleading federal authorities about the contribution.
Fortenberry chose not to address the court. Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. said Fortenberry “turned a blind eye and a deaf ear” to indications that the source of his donations was illicit.
“Mr. Fortenberry chose the wrong path,” Blumenfeld said. “He decided to respond with dishonesty rather than honesty, and lying, especially in this context, is certainly a serious matter.”
But the judge said he was convinced that Fortenberry’s actions were not representative of how he normally behaves. He said Fortenberry was generally “a man of exceptional character,” a view shared even by prosecution witnesses. When Blumenfeld wished him luck, Fortenberry said, “Thank you.”
Fortenberry later said he planned to appeal, arguing that prosecutors never should have brought the case and accusing them of taking advantage of his trust.
“This has been very traumatic and we’ve got a way to go,” he said outside the courthouse after the sentencing. “But I am grateful that … the judge recognized that the pattern of what I wanted to do with my life was simply to serve in public office and to try to help people.”
Fortenberry said he had been anxious about the hearing’s outcome. Gesturing to his surroundings in downtown Los Angeles, he said, “We’re in a very strange place. It’s not Nebraska.”
Prosecutors were seeking six months in prison for Fortenberry, while his attorneys had requested probation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said prosecutors disagreed with the decision not to impose prison time, but noted the judge’s comments endorsing the jury’s decision.
In delivering the sentence, which includes 320 hours community service, Blumenfeld cited cases of more significant public corruption that led to prison sentences of about a year. He said he didn’t think incarceration would serve a purpose in this case.
After the sentencing, Fortenberry approached the judge and spoke with him privately at the bench. Fortenberry said outside court that he thanked Blumenfeld for reading all the letters of support people sent and for noting his ambition in holding office.
The sentence was handed down as a special election was taking place to fill the rest of his term, which ends in January. Republican state Sen. Mike Flood faces a fellow legislator, Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks, in the GOP-leaning eastern Nebraska district.
Prosecutors alleged Fortenberry lied to federal agents multiple times about $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions he received from a Nigerian billionaire at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. Federal law prohibits donations from foreigners.
At his trial, prosecutors played phone recordings between Fortenberry and a donor-turned-informant, who warned the congressman that the donations had likely been funneled to him from Gilbert Chagoury, the Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. Fortenberry’s attorneys later argued that he didn’t hear the warning due to bad cellphone reception.
In the special election, Flood appears to have a strong edge in the district, which includes Lincoln, parts of suburban Omaha and dozens of smaller, more conservative towns. The district has nearly 68,000 more Republicans than Democrats and hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since 1964.
Republicans are also outpacing Democrats in early-ballot turnout for the special election, according to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office. In most elections, early absentee votes tend to favor Democrats.
For voters, a switch from Fortenberry to Flood wouldn’t make much difference in terms of policy. Both have described themselves as strong conservatives who support tax cuts and oppose abortion.
“I think it’s fair to say that their votes would line up probably 90% of the time,” said Sam Fischer, a retired Republican campaign consultant.
Fischer said Flood, like Fortenberry, tends to be a behind-the-scenes player who’s more interested in policy than seeking attention. Flood has played to this perception in campaign ads, describing himself as a “nerd” who will “get things done.”
“His style is not to be a showhorse, but a workhorse,” Fischer said.
Pansing Brooks has said she would also promote the district’s interests in Congress and work across party lines.
“I’ve said one-party rule isn’t working. We have to come together,” she said during a televised debate with Flood.
Flood and Pansing Brooks will face each other again in the November general election to decide who takes the seat for the next congressional term.
Fortenberry’s spiral began after he accepted political donations from Chagoury during a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. Chagoury funneled the money to Fortenberry’s campaign through strawmen. Chagoury’s contributions to Fortenberry and other politicians triggered a federal investigation.
Fortenberry “did not engage in this wrongdoing out of an urgent financial need or because of an aberrant life circumstance,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo. “Rather, he was motivated by plain, selfish desire to cling to his status as a powerful federal official.”
Fortenberry’s trial was the first of a sitting congressman since Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of bribery and other felony charges in 2002.
Fortenberry’s attorney, John Littrell, argued that the conviction has already devastated his client’s life by forcing him to resign from Congress, stripping away his right to vote and own firearms, and putting his federal pension at risk.
“The painful collateral consequences of this conviction have already achieved any deterrence that this prosecution could achieve,” Littrell wrote in a counter brief. “There is no danger to the public. Mr. Fortenberry has led an extraordinary and rigorously law-abiding life over his sixty-one years. He will continue to do good for others.”
Fortenberry’s departure creates an unusual situation in the district, which was redrawn by state lawmakers in September as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process.
The new districts went into effect immediately after lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved them, which changed the area and some of the constituents that Fortenberry represented, said Cindi Allen, a spokeswoman for Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale.
Flood and Pansing Brooks are running in the new district, with some new constituents that weren’t eligible to vote for Fortenberry during his last election in 2020.