The Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry has resigned from office after a California jury convicted him of lying to federal authorities about an illegal campaign donation from a foreign national.
In a letter to the House on Saturday, nine-term Republican Fortenberry said he was resigning from Congress, effective 31 March.
“It has been my honor to serve with you in the United States House of Representatives,” he said in the letter. “Due to the difficulties of my current circumstances, I can no longer effectively serve.”
Fortenberry’s announcement followed concerted pressure from political leaders in Nebraska and Washington for him to step down. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday urged Fortenberry to resign.
Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, said Fortenberry should “do the right thing for his constituents” and leave the office he has held since 2005.
Fortenberry was indicted in October after authorities said he lied to FBI agents in two separate interviews about his knowledge of an illegal $30,000 contribution to his campaign from a foreign billionaire. Fortenberry was interviewed at his home in Lincoln, and then again with his lawyers present in Washington DC.
At trial, prosecutors presented recorded phone conversations in which Fortenberry was repeatedly warned that the contributions came from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. The donations were funnelled through three strawmen at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles.
According to court documents reviewed by the Washington Post, Chagoury was accused of making illicit campaign contributions worth up to $180,000 to four American political candidates, including Fortenberry.
One of Chagoury’s associates gave $30,000 to “an individual at a restaurant in Los Angeles, who, along with others, later made campaign contributions” to Fortenberry’s re-election campaign, according to officials.
Chagoury had connections to Defense of Christians, a nonprofit that combated the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, court documents revealed. He attempted to funnel money to “politicians from less-populous states because the contribution would be more noticeable to the politician and thereby would promote increased donor access,” said federal prosecutors.
Fortenberry’s sentencing is set for 28 June, with each count carrying up to five years of federal prison time. Fortenberry has said that he would immediately appeal.
The timing of Fortenberry’s resignation is expected to trigger a special election. Governors aren’t able to appoint a person to the seat.
Under Nebraska state law, the governor has to schedule a special election within 90 days once a congressional seat becomes vacant. Each political party gets to pick a nominee who will run to serve the remainder of the congressional member’s term.
Fortenberry’s resignation letter opened with a poem, Do It Anyway, which is associated with fellow Catholic Mother Teresa. One line says: “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.”