A federal judge in Reno today has the task of examining divergent portraits of Harvey Whittemore as he prepares to sentence the former power broker in a high-profile campaign contribution scheme.
Whittemore, 61, once a high-powered lobbyist who became a fixture in Nevada politics, was convicted May 29 of unlawfully funneling $133,400 in contributions to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Whittemore was accused of giving money to 29 family members and employees of his former development company, Wingfield Nevada Group, and then using them as “conduits” for contributions to Reid’s campaign in 2007.
Federal prosecutors, who are seeking a 51-month prison term, portrayed Whittemore in court documents last week as a greedy political insider who created the scheme out of his own “lust for power.”
Defense lawyers, who want a sentence of probation, described him as a charitable, community-minded family man who has led a “virtuous life” but for the aberration of his role in the scheme.
Whittemore’s fate is in the hands of Senior U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks, who presided over the trial in Reno.
A federal jury found Whittemore guilty of three felony counts: making excessive campaign contributions, making contributions in the name of another and causing a false statement to be made to the Federal Election Commission.
The jury reported it was deadlocked on the fourth count, making a false statement to the FBI. Hicks declared a mistrial on that count and later dismissed it.
Whittemore, an attorney who became a wealthy developer after giving up his lobbying career, has vowed to appeal.
But first, he’ll learn his punishment today, when he appears before Hicks in a Reno courtroom.
In their court papers, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre and Eric Olshan, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, said a tough sentence is needed here to “serve as a reflection of the corrosive and serious nature of campaign finance crimes like those that Whittemore so brazenly committed for years.”
The prosecutors said the laws Whittemore broke struck at the heart of the nation’s election process. The laws were designed to provide a level playing field that gives the average citizen as much influence as the wealthy and politically connected.
Whittemore was driven by the need to “further ingratiate himself” with Reid, a longtime friend and powerful force on Capitol Hill, the prosecutors wrote.
“His motivation to do so was not borne from political ideology, hero worship or naivete,” they said. “Rather, it was a knowing and cynical act conceived in greed, arrogance and the lust for power.
“He executed this scheme in order to build his own power, increase his access to power and enhance his level of influence — as he had done throughout the course of his career in politics.”
Myhre and Olshan argued that Whittemore has failed to accept responsibility for his actions or show any remorse.
“It reveals a deep-seated arrogance and belief that the laws do not apply to him,” they said.
Whittemore’s defense lawyers, led by Dominic Gentile and Vincent Savarese, don’t share the government’s opinions.
They said in court papers last week that Whittemore has accepted responsibility for what he did and doesn’t deserve to spend 51 months behind bars.
“Apart from the poor judgment that he demonstrated in connection with the charges for which he faces sentencing, he has an otherwise positive and unblemished life as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a business owner, a lawyer, a lobbyist, a neighbor and a community activist/supporter/volunteer,” the lawyers wrote.
Whittemore, they contended, has already suffered enough for his actions.
The criminal case has left him humiliated, disgraced and without the immense political power he once wielded, according to the lawyers. He also is more than $1 million in debt and faces serious health problems, including diabetes and a heart condition.
Gentile and company cited a long list of defendants accused of similar campaign finance violations who resolved their cases with civil fines, sentences of probation or both. Prosecutors responded that, in all of the criminal cases Whittemore cited, the defendants pleaded guilty instead of going to trial.
The defense lawyers also criticized the government for pursuing the criminal case against Whittemore even after the campaign finance laws were changed in 2010 to allow people to make large donations to federal candidates through super political action committees.
The government appears to want Whittemore to be the “last man killed by the last bullet in the last prosecution of an obsolete law,” they wrote.
“If Mr. Whittemore did not have significant negative net worth, he could, tomorrow, write a check for $133,400 to a pro-Reid super PAC without running afoul of any law.”
Whittemore was indicted in June after an FBI investigation into his 2007 fundraising efforts for Reid. The investigation was first reported by the Review-Journal.
Prosecutors alleged that Whittemore met with Reid at an upscale restaurant on the Strip in February 2007 and promised to raise $150,000 for the Nevada Democrat’s re-election campaign.
Whittemore hatched the scheme days before the March 31, 2007, campaign contribution deadline without Reid’s knowledge in a desperate attempt to fulfill his promise to the influential senator, prosecutors alleged.
At the time, Whittemore was developing Coyote Springs, a master-planned community in Southern Nevada, and needed congressional help to overcome government hurdles. He later had a falling out with business partners in Wingfield Nevada Group, Thomas and Albert Seeno, and left the company.
Prosecutors during the two-week trial called an array of Whittemore family members and employees who acknowledged that Whittemore gave them money to contribute to Reid’s campaign.
A handwritten note from Reid thanking Whittemore for the contributions was introduced by prosecutors into evidence. In the note, Reid called Whittemore his “friend for today and for all tomorrows.”
The prosecution alleged that Whittemore duped the Reid campaign committee into believing the contributions came from the individuals.
Whittemore, who did not testify in his own defense, maintained that he did not “knowingly” violate campaign contribution laws and did nothing to hide his efforts to raise money for Reid.
Contact reporter Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal .com or 702-380-8135. Follow him on Twitter @JGermanRJ.