Judge to rule on Nebraska Rep. Fortenberry’s trial location
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was waiting to learn Friday whether a judge will allow him to stand trial in the California district where he faces felony charges or his home state of Nebraska.
U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Blumenfeld said he planned to rule on the matter and other motions filed by federal prosecutors and Fortenberry’s lawyers on Friday. Another status conference hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Fortenberry, a nine-term Republican, has pleaded not guilty to charges alleging he lied to federal authorities who were investigating an illegal 2016 campaign contribution from a foreign national at a Los Angeles fundraiser.
His attorneys have filed motions asking Blumenfeld to exclude evidence from the trial and transfer the case from California to Nebraska, citing Nebraska’s lighter caseload, a California jury pool that would likely skew Democratic and California pandemic restrictions that have temporarily halted jury trials until Feb. 22.
Prosecutors oppose the motions, arguing that Fortenberry is “venue shopping” by seeking a trial in his home state. Fortenberry had been scheduled to stand trial Feb. 15, but it’s going to be postponed because of California’s suspension of jury trials.
On Friday, Blumenfeld expressed extreme skepticism when one of Fortenberry’s attorneys, John Littrell, suggested that he should either rule favorably on motions that would undermine the prosecution’s case or agree to move the trial to Nebraska.
“If the court’s going to rule in our favor and dismiss the case, then it should go ahead and do that,” Littrell said. “If it’s not going to do that, then I think it can pass that on to a new judge.”
Blumenfeld said he was “rather surprised” to hear Littrell make that argument and questioned whether the attorney was being serious.
“It seems so blatantly self-serving and unprincipled that it is a bit surprising,” Blumenfeld said.
Littrell disputed that characterization, saying his argument was based on “the principle of duty of loyalty to my client” and his obligation to vigorously defend him. Littrell has argued that authorities targeted Fortenberry because of his conservative politics and deceived him, a claim prosecutors deny.
Blumenfeld also chastised both Fortenberry’s lawyers and prosecutors for creating “a lot of noise” around the politically charged case, including allegations of political bias and the motives for charging Fortenberry. Blumenfeld said he wasn’t “going to be influenced by noise.”
“I have a job to do, and I try to do that job in a way that’s legally based and principled,” he said, advising the lawyers “not to simply advocate for an extreme position that you can probably guess is going to have a low probability of success.”
Fortenberry has said through his lawyers that he wants to stand trial as quickly as possible. He faces a serious GOP primary challenge from Nebraska state Sen. Mike Flood, a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature who has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman.
The primary is May 10. The primary winners will face state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a Democrat, in the heavily Republican 1st Congressional District.
Fortenberry’s attorneys have also said they want a memory expert to testify about the congressman’s state of mind when he told federal authorities that he didn’t recall being warned about the illegal donation.
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