Whittemore campaign contribution case shifts to admissibility of seized documents

Defense lawyers hope to persuade a federal judge on Wednesday to toss out key evidence in the high-profile criminal case accusing Harvey Whittemore of funneling $138,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Attorneys Dominic Gentile and Vincent Savarese contend the evidence, 81 boxes of documents taken from the former political power broker’s office, was obtained and withheld from Whittemore without a warrant.

The evidence includes documents identifying the surrogate contributors Whittemore is alleged to have used in the scheme, a book about campaign finance law, and a note from Reid thanking Whittemore for the 2007 contributions.

Whittemore, 59, an attorney who once wielded political influence as a top lobbyist in Carson City, is alleged to have duped the Nevada Democrat’s campaign committee into believing the contributions were legal. His trial is set for May 14 in Reno before Senior U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks.

On Wednesday, two Las Vegas lawyers, James Pisanelli and Richard Wright, are expected to testify, as Hicks determines whether Whittemore’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure were violated by the government.

The hearing will be in Las Vegas, with audio access at the federal courthouse in Reno for those wishing to listen to testimony.

Pisanelli represented Whittemore’s former partners in Wingfield Nevada Group, a land development company, in a lawsuit against Whittemore.

After Whittemore and the partners, Thomas and Albert Seeno, had a falling out and Whittemore left the company, the partners sent the 81 boxes of documents from his office to Pisanelli’s Las Vegas law firm.

Wright, a longtime criminal defense attorney, tipped the FBI to the campaign contribution allegations on behalf of the Seenos and steered agents to Pisanelli’s law firm to review the material in Whittemore’s boxes.

Savarese argued before Hicks last month that an unlawful seizure occurred when Whittemore’s lawyers tried to get the boxes back from Pisanelli’s firm.

Pisanelli, according to Savarese, was quoted in the lawsuit between Whittemore and the Seenos as saying an FBI agent had instructed his firm to keep the boxes until all evidence was examined.

Federal prosecutors don’t back up that story.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre told Hicks last month that there was no evidence of any such instruction and the relevant material in the boxes was obtained by FBI agents through a lawful grand jury subpoena.

Myhre said there was no need for a hearing, but Hicks later indicated in a written order that he wanted a better understanding of why Pisanelli’s firm resisted giving the boxes to Whittemore’s lawyers. The judge put the burden of providing that explanation on the government.

Besides Pisanelli and Wright, FBI agents involved in the investigation also may have to testify on Wednesday.

The investigation became public Feb. 9, 2012, as agents fanned out across the state to serve subpoenas on Whittemore business associates, family and employees at some 30 locations.

In recent years, Whittemore turned his attention away from lobbying to land development. At the time of his push to contribute 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, his longtime friend, and other members of the Nevada congressional delegation, Whittemore sought to overcome several government hurdles related to water and federal land issues.

In 2008 the 43,000-acre development stalled because of the housing crash and economic recession, and has languished since.

Whittemore, who is free on his own recognizance, was indicted by a Reno federal grand jury in June. He faces four criminal charges: making excessive campaign contributions; making contributions in the name of another; and two counts of making a false statement to a federal agency.

The indictment charges him with lying to both the FBI and the Federal Election Commission, which regulates campaign contributions.

Whittemore, who denies wrongdoing, met with Reid in February 2007 in Las Vegas and agreed to raise $150,000 by the March 31, 2007, campaign finance deadline, according to the indictment.

He unlawfully used family members and associates as conduits for contributions to the senator’s campaign and then reimbursed them, the indictment alleges.

Federal law then allowed a maximum $4,600 to be contributed to a campaign by an individual and $9,200 by a couple.

The indictment alleges Whittemore reimbursed those who contributed to the campaign $5,000 for an individual $4,600 contribution and $10,000 for a $9,200 contribution by a couple.

Whittemore is alleged to have paid his associates through checks and wire transfers from his personal account. The indictment alleges he tried to conceal the reimbursements by calling them bonuses.

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