In late May 2013, news spread like wildfire through the Legislative Building that one-time power broker Harvey Whittemore had been convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Lawmakers and lobbyists, in shock, asked the same question: “Did you hear what they did to Harvey?”
I thought — and still do — that the more appropriate question was, “Did you hear what Harvey was caught doing?” After promising to raise a large sum in a short time for Reid, Whittemore found he was long on dollars and short on contributors. So he distributed his own money to family and employees and encouraged donations to Reid.
One cannot avoid wondering two things: One, how did an experienced politico such as Whittemore cross an obvious legal line? And two, what would be the purpose of making political donations in such a way that only the donor and the recipient were aware of the transaction?
The answer to the second question can be found in a thank you note Reid sent to Whittemore when the checks cleared: “You are my friend today and for all tomorrows.”
Indeed. (Reid was not charged in the case, nor is there evidence he was aware of Whittemore’s conduit-contribution scheme.)
Whittemore was scheduled to turn himself in to the federal Bureau of Prisons last week, after a federal appeal was rejected. His lawyers argued his violation was nonviolent and he’s unlikely to offend again, which is probably true. His friends and supporters — and they are legion in Nevada’s political, legal, lobbying and even media circles — argue his violation doesn’t warrant a prison sentence. And Whittemore suffers from ailments including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Those are all good reasons to feel sympathy for the man, to make sure he gets good medical care and even to visit him while he serves his two-year sentence. But they’re not reasons to keep him out of prison.
For years, the physically imposing Whittemore stalked the halls of the Nevada Legislature as if he owned the place and was merely leasing it back to the elected representatives of the people. He brokered many deals, represented many clients and won many victories. He was involved with campaigns and candidates. He rarely lost, and, as is the nature of these things, the forces who paid him rarely had the public good in mind.
But those are not the reasons Whittemore faced prison time, nor should they be. His type of uber-lobbying remains all too legal. But his position as the apex lobbyist also undercut his central defense, that he was unable to understand his crime, and that he gave himself bad legal advice. This is, in the panoply of excuses, one half-step above the man who throws himself upon the mercy of the court because he’s very, very sorry — that he was caught.
Whittemore was not charged with pride, nor hubris, although he might well have been. He easily could have called his longtime friend (“for all tomorrows”!) Reid and told him he’d need just a little more time to reach the agreed-upon figure. He could have admitted he didn’t have as many wealthy friends upon whom he could put the considerable Whittemore charm, or the equally effective Whittemore arm. Instead, unable to admit failure, Whittemore cut a very significant corner. And he got caught.
Whittemore’s story is thus a cautionary tale to the next generation of alpha-lobbyists who long to be gazed at the way Whittemore was, to earn the respect among the tribe the way he did, to get the big clients and work on the big issues and earn the big bucks. But instead of asking the question they asked last May with outrage and indignity, they should ask in fear of avoiding Whittemore’s fate. Let that be the new message behind the words: “Did you hear what they did to Harvey?”
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.