RENO — A federal judge in Reno removed a juror but declined to declare a mistrial Thursday in Harvey Whittemore’s trial on charges of illegal campaign fundraising. The juror was overheard making a comment that raised questions about whether he could be fair to the former developer and high-powered lobbyist.
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks told attorneys that after the prosecution rested its case, someone overheard the juror complain about having to listen to the other side. The person reported the overheard comment to the court clerk.
The judge and lawyers questioned the juror and then replaced him with one of the alternates. They also questioned others jurors who might have heard the comment, but no others were ousted. The jury is now made up of six men and six women with one remaining alternate.
Whittemore is accused of using family, friends and employees at his real estate company to effectively launder his own contributions to the Senate majority leader. Prosecutors said he bundled together nearly $150,000 for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s re-election campaign in 2007 by writing checks to others, who then contributed the maximum $4,600 each to the Nevada Democrat.
Whittemore’s lawyers said the contributions were perfectly legal. Each individual Whittemore approached could have declined to participate, and each wrote their own personal check to the Friends of Harry Reid Committee, the attorneys said.
Whittemore has pleaded not guilty to all four counts: making excessive campaign contributions, making contributions in the name of another, causing a false statement to be made to the Federal Election Commission and making a false statement to the FBI. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each.
Defense lawyers called as their first witness Whittemore attorney Dan Bowen, who challenged the accounts of FBI agents who questioned Whittemore last February at Bowen’s office.
Prosecutors said Whittemore lied to the FBI agents when he denied ever asking people to make campaign contributions to selected candidates. But Bowen said Whittemore never said any such thing.
He also testified that Whittemore did not tell the agents he had never talked to a candidate about raising money for that candidate.
“That’s crazy. It’s what he’s done for 35 years,” Bowen said.
Prosecutors said Whittemore promised Reid during a luncheon meeting at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas in February 2007 that he would raise $150,000 for the Senate majority leader before the end of the next month.
Bowen said Whittemore told the FBI agents he had written checks to family and employees as gifts and bonuses when he asked them to contribute to Reid’s campaign.
“He said, ‘I didn’t direct them to contribute. I requested them to give. They did it on their own.’ I remember him saying several times ‘I never checked back to see if they did,’” Bowen said.
One agent asked Whittemore if he thought his workers would have been under pressure to make the contributions for fear of loss of their jobs, he said.
Bowen said Whittemore answered, “Absolutely not. It was completely voluntary.”
Bowen, who had represented Whittemore in a previous civil case, said he ended the FBI’s roughly 10-minute interview after finally reaching on the telephone Whittemore’s lead criminal lawyer in this case, Dominique Gentile, who had advised him to do so.
He said he would have stopped the questioning sooner but the FBI agents wouldn’t answer his question about whether Whittemore could refuse.
“Not being a criminal lawyer, I didn’t know if it was obstruction of justice or something. I got no response. They just looked at me with blank stares,” he said. “So we talked to them.”