Donations to Reid-connected PACs legal, but don't seem quite right

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t break laws when he asked Las Vegas attorney Will Kemp to donate to the Senate Majority PAC to help elect Democrats in the 2012 cycle.

The senator, a lawyer himself, knew Kemp and Robert Eglet had won a huge verdict of $182 million from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in a case in which large vials of Propofol were partially blamed for a hepatitis outbreak.

Kemp wasn’t new to donating to Reid. He had been a donor to Friends for Harry Reid in the past 2010 cycle and had given $4,800. According to opensecrets.org, Kemp’s largest donation in the past three years was for $8,500 to the Democratic Party of Nevada. And while he leaned Democratic, he also gave to some Republicans.

However, ethical questions abound about whether Reid’s latest judicial nominee, Jennifer Dorsey, a partner in Jones, Kemp and Coulthard, could have seen — or hoped to see — her chances for an appointment enhanced by a series of contributions from Kemp and his partner, J. Randall Jones.

It’s the time line and the size of the amounts that are creating that sewage smell.

Despite that, Reid said Friday he believed she would be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Check out what happened when:

■ October 2011: Kemp wins his big Teva case, not his first big payday as a longtime trial attorney.

■  Jan. 9, 2012: Kemp donates $8,500 to the Democratic Party of Nevada, generally considered the party designed to elect Reid first and foremost and other Democrats as an afterthought.

■  Sometime in January or February 2012, according to Kemp’s statements to political analyst Jon Ralston, Reid asks Kemp and his partners to donate to the Senate Majority PAC. It’s unclear whether his donation to the party fell before or after Reid’s request. Kemp didn’t return a call Friday to clarify the time line.

■ March 31, 2012: Dorsey donates $2,500 to Friends for Harry Reid. Sometime that month she expressed her interest in a federal judgeship. The same day, Kemp contributes $2,500 to the Friends of Harry Reid.

■ April 30, 2012: Reid returns her money but keeps Kemp’s.

■ May 1, 2012: The day after Dorsey’s money is returned, Kemp donates $100,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, and law partner Jones donates $5,000 to the Democratic Party of Nevada.

■ May 14, 2012: Two weeks later, Jones donates $50,000 to the Senate Majority PAC.

■ June 12, 2012: Reid recommends Dorsey to the White House.

■ Aug. 23, 2012: Jones donates $8,000 to the Democratic Party of Nevada.

■ Sept. 19, 2012: She is nominated by President Barack Obama.

■ Oct. 23, 2012: Jones makes a $10,000 contribution to the Democratic Party of Nevada.

At a meeting at the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Friday, I asked Reid to address the perception that the donations were made for a purpose.

He answered, “It’s too bad that her being a member of that law firm is causing some problems for her.” He noted he had known Kemp for decades. “He’s one of the finest trial lawyers in the country, and that’s not just hyperbole, that’s true.”

Reid went on to condemn the Citizens United decision in January 2010, which allows unlimited corporate and labor money in campaigns as independent expenditures. Reid called it one of the four or five worst decisions in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reid said he abides by the rules and does not control the Senate Majority PAC. He asked Kemp to donate, but PAC officials dealt with the lawyer after that.

By my tally, based on the Open Secrets website, in 2012, Kemp and Jones between them gave $150,000 to the Senate Majority PAC and $28,500 to the Democratic Party of Nevada, and Kemp gave an extra $2,500 to Friends of Reid, for a total of $181,000.

In previous years, Kemp and Jones had given but not at that level.

In 2010, Kemp gave Reid $4,800; Jones gave him $11,700. Kind of a big jump from $16,500 to Friends for Reid in one cycle to $181,000 to Reid, the Majority PAC and the Democratic Party in the 2012 cycle.

That’s a lot of Democratic lovin’. Especially for two lawyers who also pony up for Republicans.

Reid mentioned the nearly $150 million that Las Vegas Sands Corp. boss Sheldon Adelson had given to elect Republicans in 2012 and how a Rhode Island man made a federal judgeship though he and his wife donated $700,000 to Democrats since 1993.

While $150,000 sounds like a lot to me, Reid said it’s all relative because the Senate Majority PAC raised more than $60 million.

Reid must be conflicted. He competes successfully at raising money, whether it’s for his own campaign, the party or various PACs. Yet he says, “I think this whole campaign finance thing has gotten way out of hand.”

Later he mused, “It may not corrupt people, but it is corrupting.”

Dorsey, 42, said she doesn’t talk to reporters. But if she knew her partners were donating all this money at the time she was seeking a judgeship (and how could she not know), she should have stopped it. But then she did donate $2,500 after asking for the job. Maybe she thought it was expected. Or maybe the judicial candidate’s judgment about perception isn’t so keen.

When her partners had never donated in such large sums before, it smacks of old-style payola. It may be legal, but it’s not right.

However, I suspect the canny Reid is correct, Dorsey will get confirmed. Senators of both parties won’t want to see their own donations restricted as they themselves race for the almighty dollar.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at 702-383-0275.