Both sides in Fortenberry case rest; Congressman’s wife takes the stand
LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - The jury of 12 Californians won’t hear from Congressman Jeff Fortenberry before being left to decide the Republican Representative’s fate.
Fortenberry declined to testify after his counsel rested their case Thursday morning. The prosecution plans on introducing rebuttal, then we expect closing arguments to commence and the jury to get the case.
But first, the jury heard from the defense’s final witness, Fortenberry’s wife of 26 years, Celeste. Before Celeste took the stand, she shared a hug with their youngest daughter, who continued to give Celeste smiles from the courtroom benches through her testimony.
Defense attorney Glen Summers asked Celeste about her husband’s memory. She said the first time they met, Fortenberry didn’t remember her, even though she believed they had a strong connection.
Summers also asked Celeste about the cell phone service in their Northeast Lincoln home, as they’ve been arguing that Fortenberry may not have heard the mentions of illegal activity in the June 2018 phone call with Dr. Elias Ayoub.
Celeste described the cell service in her home as “spotty.” She said her kids complain about it all of the time and she had to get a landline for her work. The prosecution asked further questions about cell phone service in cross-examination. Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Harr asked Celeste if she would mention the service was bad in her phone calls. Celeste said “It depends,” and that sometimes she would use context clues to fill in the blanks.
Celeste also testified that her husband “loathed” fundraising calls and he often did them on autopilot while completing other tasks around the house.
“In the kitchen cooking or washing up, walking the dog, driving, he’s been on the roof fixing the chimney or raccoon damage,” Celeste said. “He does something else at the same time.”
She testified he is often on “autopilot” while making these calls and they often follow the same script of the Congressman making a personal connection with the person on the other end, making the ask and assuring them he would take a smaller amount or whatever the person could give.
This is a similar script as to what was said in the phone call with Ayoub. The defense, tried to ask Celeste several questions about what she remembers from that phone call, but due to several hearsay objects she wasn’t able to say much. Celeste said she remembers there was a phone call, but she doesn’t know if she was there. She said she remembered her husband came to her and said he was concerned about the call and they decided he should reach out to a lawyer.
Harr asked Celeste if her husband had to pay attention at least to who she was talking to and Celeste said “of course.”
Celeste also testified to what was happening in the days surrounding the June 4, 2018 phone call and the March 23, 2019 FBI interview. In both, she and Fortenberry were just getting back from international trips.
Evidence introduced by the defense showed the Fortenberrys arrived back from a trip to Europe on June 3, 2018. Celeste said they arrived late that night and the next day were preparing to bring their daughter to Charleston for a major surgery the next day.
“We were exhausted, concerned, managing a lot of things, trying to be present for our children and concerned about our daughter’s upcoming surgery,” Celeste said.
Celeste painted a similar picture of business and exhaustion ahead of the surprise interview with the FBI on March 23, 2019. She said she and her husband were in Kenya on a conservation trip when Nebraska went through historic flooding. She said Fortenberry didn’t sleep “much at all” on the trip to Africa and as soon as they got back on March 22, he went right to surveying flood damage. Then, Celeste heard a knock on the door.
“It was not expected at all,” Celeste said. “I answered and there were two men standing there. They flashed a badge, I didn’t understand their names and they wanted to talk to my husband. I said he was out looking at flood damage.”
Celeste said she was scared. Video from the interaction showed a few of Fortenberry’s daughters walk into their home as the FBI agents were there. Celeste said her husband was upset and they called the police.
Summers also asked Celeste about her husband’s character. Through multiple objections, she testified that he was honest and not likely to lie to the government.
The judge is finishing up jury instructions at this time. Closing arguments are expected to come sometime Thursday.
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