Time and courts change corporate contribution charade

Today, what Harvey Whittemore may have done, and what Las Vegans Ray Norvell, Ramon Desage and Jim Rhodes definitely did do, would be so unnecessary, no crime would be involved.

Since 2010 when the dog leash was removed from corporate donations in federal races, corporations haven’t had to go through the charade of lining up employees and family members to give “personal” donations to their chosen politicians, and then reimburse them, which is a felony.

Smart Nevada corporations were less obvious. They gave employees “bonuses” which, with a wink and a nod, were expected to be redirected to favored ones running for election.

Now both parties are enjoying the freedom the U.S. Supreme Court gave them to create political action committees that suck up campaign dollars like ladies of the night.

Let’s remember what happened when conduit contributions were still a crime:

■ In 1998, Ray Norvell, an executive with DeLuca Liquor and Wine in Las Vegas, paid a $100,000 fine and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors after he arranged for himself and his wife, four DeLuca managers and their spouses to make $10,000 in illegal donations to Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1995. They were all reimbursed with the wine distributor’s money. The Federal Election Commission also fined Norvell and DeLuca a total of $60,000.

■ In 1999, Ramon Desage, president of an express delivery service in Las Vegas, pleaded guilty to making an illegal donation to Dole’s campaign. Desage reimbursed five people, all employees or their spouses, to contribute $5,000. That was a pretty small sum considering he was fined $175,000 and ordered to give another $25,000 to charity.

Las Vegas’ most controversial land developer, Jim Rhodes, did the same thing, but wasn’t criminally prosecuted. He settled by paying a civil fine to the FEC.

In 2002, Rhodes and 14 of his employees donated $27,000 to congressional candidate Dario Herrera and another $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, but were paid back through Rhodes’ corporations. He and his businesses were fined $159,000.

Now Whittemore is being investigated for the same thing, accused of reimbursing family and friends for political contributions.

A land developer like Rhodes as well as an uber-lobbyist for many years, Whittemore was a major donor to politicians in both parties. Understand, in this situation, the ones receiving the money are not charged. The organizer and the reimbursed donors are the ones facing felonies.

Whittemore, the developer of the failed Coyote Springs 55 miles from Las Vegas, could have given all the corporate dollars he wanted starting in 2010. But not before then. The feds are examining records dating back to 2007, sources told the Review-Journal.

In some ways, these are easy cases to prove. Follow the paper trail by checking bank records to see if someone wrote a check one day and was reimbursed soon afterward.

Whittemore showed a proclivity to bend the rules in 1995 when he was lobbying for the Hilton Hotels Corp.

Hilton had been smacked with a civil judgment after the 1991 Tailhook convention at the Las Vegas Hilton, where 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted by drunken Navy aviators. One woman won a $5 million civil judgment.

Whittemore, working with state Senate Judiciary Chairman Mark James, R-Las Vegas, sought to pass a tort reform bill in the 1995 Legislature. However, the bill contained surreptitious language that would retroactively void the jury verdict against the Hilton.

It was sneaky and almost worked, until now-retired Associated Press reporter Brendan Riley broke the story and embarrassed Whittemore and James. The retroactive language was yanked.

The lobbyist was revealed as a sneak. But he is neither the first nor the last sneak to manipulate politicians for his own ends.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison.

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