Embattled developer and gaming lobbyist Harvey Whittemore fired back at his former business partners Wednesday by filing his own multimillion-dollar lawsuit, accusing them of making death threats, racketeering and extortion.
In a civil complaint filed in federal court in Reno, Whittemore is seeking $60 million from Thomas Seeno, Albert Seeno Jr., and Albert Seeno III, alleging they defrauded him through their partnership, Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co. The partnership oversees the languishing Coyote Springs community and other companies.
An attorney for the Seenos, Reno’s Kent Robison, denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
"Desperate people do desperate things. That is the ultimate Hail Mary lawsuit. It’s ridiculous," Robison said.
Last week, the Seenos sued Whittemore, accusing him of embezzling and misappropriating more than $40 million from the company, including using company money to support a lavish lifestyle. The Seenos accused Whittemore of spending millions on private jet flights, home improvement projects and entertainment.
The Wingfield Nevada Group is controlled by Thomas Seeno and Albert Seeno Jr., two brothers who partnered with Whittemore in his master-planned communities in Northern and Southern Nevada and who have ownership stakes in the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Washoe County.
Whittemore, 55, has not returned calls requesting comment. He and his wife, Annette, have told other media that the allegations made by the Seenos are false and that they will take "all steps necessary to preserve" their reputation.
Whittemore’s Reno attorney, Dan Bowen, declined to comment Wednesday.
WHITTEMORE STRIKES BACK
Whittemore charges in his lawsuit that the Seenos are falsely accusing him of fraud and embezzlement.
He alleges that Albert Seeno Jr. and his son, Albert Seeno III, are associated with organized crime syndicates and have associated with known felons.
As part of the extortion claims, Whittemore alleges: "Albert Seeno Jr. threatened to go to the FBI with information that he alleged he had regarding these alleged improprieties; that he would personally bring down every member of the political ‘machine’ in Nevada including references to U.S. Senators; that in the course of this threat asked whether Mr. Whittemore believed in God; whether Mr. Whittemore went to church; that Mr. Whittemore should gather his flock on Sunday and pray."
The lawsuit alleges that the Whittemores have been "living under the threat of death" and "serious bodily injury" for a year.
In February 2011, Seeno III told an employee of Wingfield Nevada Group that he would "break Harvey’s (expletive) legs" if the Seenos didn’t get their money, the lawsuit alleged. Whittemore reported the threat to Reno police.
Because of the threats, Whittemore has transferred millions of dollars in assets to the Wingfield Nevada Group and Thomas Seeno, the lawsuit alleged.
"The Seenos have engaged in a continuous pattern of criminal conduct directed against the Whittemores to attempt to collect unlawful payments and to take over (Wingfield Nevada Group), to devalue assets, to evade taxes, and to make an improper land deal with the (Wingfield Nevada Group) assets," the lawsuit alleged.
Between September 2010 and January 2011, the lawsuit charged, the Seenos sent employees to the Whittemores’ homes "to intimidate them and force them to give up assets, including jewelry, art and automobiles under the continued threat of bodily injury."
On one occasion, according to the lawsuit, a "very ominous and burly man named Ray" demanded that Whittemore open a safe in one of his homes. The man dumped everything in the safe, cash and jewelry, and left with it, the lawsuit said.
Another time, a Seeno associate broke into a Whittemore residence in Las Vegas and removed computer equipment, the lawsuit alleged: "On information and belief, Albert Seeno III orchestrated this robbery and remained in a car outside the residence while the theft was in process."
The lawsuit contended — but did not provide details — that Seeno Jr. and his son are being investigated by the FBI and the IRS. Officials at the FBI and the IRS declined to comment.
PROBES UNDER WAY
At least two agencies, the Reno Police Department and the State Bar of Nevada, are investigating the embezzlement allegations leveled against Whittemore by the Seenos.
The state Gaming Control Board will not confirm or deny whether it is investigating the allegations leveled by either the Seenos or Whittemore. Chairman Mark Lipparelli has said, "As an agency, we are always looking at the various activities of our licensees."
According to the Seenos’ lawsuit, Albert Seeno Jr., paid Whittemore $44 million for his share of the holding group in 2007; Thomas Seeno had bought one-third of the shares in 2004. The Seenos had warned Whittemore not to spend all the money, as he was required to help pay off the holding group’s debt.
But 15 months later, in 2008, Whittemore said he "was broke" and did not have the money to keep his ownership share financially viable, the lawsuit said.
Whittemore had "significant liquid assets in 2008 that he used to continue his lavish and upscale lifestyle including exotic vacations and substantial jewelry purchases," the Seenos’ lawsuit said.
Whittemore also bought nine homes in the names of his children using the money from the Seeno acquisition, the lawsuit said, and in 2009 and 2010, Thomas Seeno personally loaned Whittemore $1.4 million so that the lobbyist could maintain his lifestyle.
By May 2010, the Seenos discovered several financial discrepancies, the lawsuit said.
Whittemore gave a statement showing he used the holding group’s money in at least 20 different transactions to support his personal matters, political donations and relationships, and lavish lifestyle, according to the lawsuit.
Some of the expenditures included $600,000 in cash for meals and entertainment between 2004 and 2010; $186,000 for stereo and sound equipment for his residences; more than $100,000 of the company’s money loaned to his friends and never paid back; $200,000 on his daughter’s wedding; $1 million in charges at a golf course; and a $900,000 unauthorized salary, the lawsuit said.
The Whittemores are accused of spending more than $2 million for private jet flights between 2004 and 2010.
The Seeno lawsuit does not detail how much Wingfield Nevada Group money Whittemore gave to political candidates. But a cursory review of Federal Election Commission information shows that Harvey and Annette Whittemore have given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates seeking federal office, including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and former Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus.
Donations were made to former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, Sen. Thomas Harkin, D-Iowa, unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Tony Knowles of Alaska, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., and to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Whittemores also have given thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and committees, including former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada.
Whittemore, a longtime friend of Reid, developed master-planned communities in Northern and Southern Nevada, including Wingfield Springs in Sparks and Coyote Springs, which is about 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas, straddling Clark and Lincoln counties on U.S. Highway 93.
About 160,000 homes were planned for Coyote Springs, a development that stalled in 2008 because of the housing crash and economic recession.
Whittemore once was considered the most powerful legislative lobbyist in Nevada and one of the nation’s top gaming attorneys. He represented the Nevada Resort Association, an organization of the state’s top casinos, individual casinos and 100 businesses. He had worked as managing partner for Lionel, Sawyer and Collins’ Reno office for many years. He now operates a small law office in Reno.
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