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Appeals court hears Whittemore appeal

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Monday heard arguments to overturn Harvey Whittemore’s conviction for breaking campaign contribution laws.

The former power broker wants the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn his conviction for illegally funneling campaign contributions to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

A Reno jury last year found him guilty of funneling $133,400 in contributions to Reid’s campaign. Reid wasn’t accused of wrongdoing and did not testify at the trial.

Whittemore, 62, surrendered Aug. 6 at a federal prison camp in Lompoc, Calif., to start serving a two-year sentence.

One appeals judge suggested during the arguments that the prison term, which Whittemore did not appeal, was a bit harsh. “It’s kind of remarkable,” the judge said.

Whittemore, a lawyer and influential lobbyist, was convicted of giving money to family members and employees of his former company, Wingfield Nevada Group, and then using them as conduits for contributions to Reid’s 2007 re-election committee to skirt federal campaign laws.

Defense lawyer Vincent Savarese argued Monday that there was no criminal intent on Whittemore’s part and the checks he wrote to his family and employees were unconditional gifts.

No crime was committed because the people were free to do whatever they wanted with the money, Savarese argued.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth White countered it was no coincidence that all of the people turned around and donated the money to Reid’s campaign.

“What we have here is blatant, straightforward conduit contributions,” White said. “We don’t think there is any coincidence that he chose people who were dependent on him.”

After the arguments, the appeals panel said it would issue a written decision.

Federal prosecutors alleged at the trial that Whittemore met with Reid at an upscale restaurant on the Strip in February 2007 and promised to raise $150,000 for the senator’s re-election campaign.

Whittemore hatched the scheme days before the March 31, 2007, campaign contribution deadline without Reid’s knowledge to fulfill his promise to the senator, one of the most powerful members of Congress, prosecutors alleged.

At the time, Whittemore was developing Coyote Springs, a master-planned community 50 miles from Las Vegas on the Lincoln and Clark county line, and needed congressional help to overcome government hurdles.

The Reno jury found Whittemore guilty of three felony counts: making excessive campaign contributions, making contributions in the name of another and causing Reid to file a false report with the Federal Elections Commission.

The Nevada Supreme Court late last year temporarily suspended Whittemore’s license to practice law because of his conviction.

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