OMAHA, Neb. -- Nebraska state Sen. Mike Flood won a special election Tuesday to replace former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a fellow Republican who was sentenced to two years of probation earlier in the day for a conviction on charges that he lied to federal agents.
Flood beat Democratic state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in the state’s Republican-leaning 1st District, which includes Lincoln and dozens of smaller, mostly conservative towns in eastern Nebraska.
Flood, a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, will serve the rest of what would have been Fortenberry’s ninth term. He’ll be a strong favorite to win a new term in November, when he faces Pansing Brooks again in the general election.
Both candidates were nominated by their parties’ leaders in April to run in the special election. The next month, Nebraska primary voters picked them to run in the general election.
In court on Tuesday, Fortenberry sat quietly as U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld ordered him to serve probation, pay a $25,000 fine and perform community service. Blumenfeld rejected prosecutors’ request for a prison sentence, saying the ex-congressman “chose the wrong path,” but that his behavior in the case was out of character.
Fortenberry resigned in March shortly after a California jury found him guilty in the corruption case. He has maintained his innocence and said he plans to appeal. Before he was indicted in October, Fortenberry was expected to sail to an easy and largely uneventful win.
Prosecutors alleged that Fortenberry lied to federal agents multiple times about $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions he received from a foreign national at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. Federal law bars donations from foreign nationals.
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, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. Fortenberry’s attorneys later argued that he didn’t hear the warning due to bad cellphone reception.
Fortenberry was charged after he claimed in two interviews with FBI agents that he didn’t know the donations had come from a foreign national, after the agents warned him that lying to them was a federal crime.
Fortenberry maintained his innocence throughout the process, going so far as to release a preemptive denial of the charges before they were announced in a video that he filmed inside a 1963 Ford F-150 pickup, with his wife and dog at his side. He also continued to campaign, decrying his prosecution as politically motivated and airing attack ads against Flood.
But as more details of the case became public, Fortenberry quickly lost support among top Nebraska Republicans. Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman dealt him a major blow when they endorsed Flood.
Flood stayed mostly positive throughout the campaign, airing several lighthearted ads, including one where he described himself as a conservative “ nerd ” who would get things done in Washington.
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Melley reported from Los Angeles.