Federal prosecutors were poised to call witnesses today to a Reno grand jury investigating allegations political power broker Harvey Whittemore funneled tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to Nevada federal races.
The grand jury proceeding, which by law is secret, is the next phase of the high-profile investigation into the campaign activities of Whittemore, an influential lobbyist who befriended many in the state’s political hierarchy.
Two dozen or more witnesses have been subpoenaed to the grand jury, sources said.
FBI agents fanned out across Nevada on Feb. 9 to serve subpoenas on Whittemore business associates, family members and employees.
Federal authorities are investigating whether Whittemore used his employees and family members as conduits to help him spread campaign money to federal candidates as far back as 2007, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has reported.
The FBI views conduit contributions as a way to skirt federal campaign finance laws that put ceilings on how much individuals can contribute to candidates.
Whittemore issued an initial statement three weeks ago through a Las Vegas law firm spokeswoman, saying the FBI’s interest in him was “based on reckless accusations” from his former business partners in a civil lawsuit. Since then, however, the Whittemore camp has shied away from commenting on the investigation.
Allegations surfaced that employees of Whittemore’s former development company, Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co., and its subsidiaries contributed to the campaigns and were reimbursed by Whittemore with company money the same day or the next day.
The grand jury subpoenas sought documents related to campaign contributions they made and copies of checks to and from the politically connected lobbyist dating to January 2007.
Contributions made on one date — March 31, 2007 — to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s re-election campaign have attracted the interest of FBI agents.
On that day, the Democratic majority leader’s campaign received at least $133,400 from 29 Whittemore associates, including his family members and his employees and their spouses, most of whom each contributed the maximum allowed $4,600, according to federal campaign reports.
Many of those people, some of whom have declined to comment when contacted by the Review-Journal, were expected to be among those summoned to the grand jury.
Whittemore and his wife, Annette, also contributed $9,200 on March 31, 2007, bringing the total money bundled by Whittemore to at least $142,600. Their contributions, however, are not likely to be considered conduit contributions.
A conduit campaign scheme involving current and former top officials with the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona is providing insight into how the Whittemore investigation may be unfolding in Nevada.
Natalie Wisneski, the Fiesta Bowl’s former chief operating officer, is set to plead guilty in the scheme in an Arizona federal court on March 14.
She is alleged to have used her position to reimburse bowl employees for contributions made to state and federal candidates in Arizona, including the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain.
The bowl’s former CEO, John Junker, and two others pleaded guilty to state charges in the scheme last week.
An Arizona federal grand jury returned a nine-count indictment against Wisneski in November that included charges of making campaign contributions in the name of another and causing false statements to be made to the Federal Election Commission.
The charges fall under the Federal Election Campaign Act, which regulates the financial activities of candidates for federal office and the political action committees on their behalf.
Federal prosecutors here are likely looking at similar charges in the Whittemore investigation.
Nevada law enforcement agencies are not participating in the federal probe, which is an indication Whittemore’s contributions in state races have not come under scrutiny.
In recent years Whittemore, who considered Reid among his closest friends, had turned his attention to land development.
At the time of his big push to donate money to Reid’s campaign, Whittemore was orchestrating the development of Coyote Springs, a master-planned community in Southern Nevada. With the help of Reid and other members of the Nevada congressional delegation, Whittemore sought to overcome several governmental hurdles because of county water issues and federal land issues.
But in 2008, the 43,000-acre development stalled because of the housing crash and economic recession.
The forerunner to the federal investigation was a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Whittemore’s former business partners filed in Las Vegas, alleging Whittemore embezzled $44 million from the Wingfield Nevada Group.
The company 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, including the languishing Coyote Springs community.
Whittemore responded with his own $60 million lawsuit in Reno federal court against the Seenos, accusing them of racketeering, extortion and defrauding him through their partnership.
The Seenos say they have a “confession” by Whittemore where he admits to using company money to support his lavish lifestyle and maintain his political connections.
On Friday, Whittemore filed court papers in the federal lawsuit opposing a move by the Seenos to have the federal case joined to their case in Clark County District Court.
In an affidavit, Whittemore said he “never” made a confession, but “at the direction of the Seenos, and under threat of death and/or bodily injury, I prepared two agendas as talking points for meetings with the Seenos.”
Whittemore said he planned on refuting the “agenda items” he viewed as accusations made by the Seenos. “Nowhere did I admit to committing any crime or fraud,” Whittemore said in the affidavit.
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Francis McCabe can be reached at email@example.com or 702-380-1039.