The bigger they are, the harder they fall. That could be the title of the colorful biography of Reno attorney/developer/lobbyist Harvey Whittemore, who is on trial in federal court on charges of making nearly $140,000 worth of illegal campaign contributions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Once the most powerful and influential lobbyist in the Legislative Building, Whittemore is now fighting to stay out of federal prison. It’s a long fall from his glory days here in Carson, when he pretty much got everything he wanted from the Legislature, thanks in part to generous campaign contributions. Testimony at his Reno trial has alleged that during a lunch with Reid in Las Vegas in 2007, Whittemore promised to raise at least $150,000 for the senator’s 2010 re-election campaign.
According to a court document filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, “Whittemore sought to make good on that promise by using employees of his real estate company — Wingfield Nevada Group — as well as his family members and many of their spouses as ‘straw’ or ‘conduit’ donors” to avoid limits on individual campaign contributions. “On a single day Whittemore caused one of his workers to transmit about $138,000 to Reid’s campaign,” Myhre said.
Whittemore says he supported Reid because of the senator’s support for the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease, a research institute created to find a cure for a disease suffered by Whittemore’s daughter Andrea.
During the trial, Whittemore’s attorneys have argued that he gave cash “gifts” to his employees without requiring them to donate to Reid’s campaign, but Myhre countered that their “bundled” contributions to the senator’s campaign actually came from Whittemore in violation of federal campaign-contribution laws. If convicted, Whittemore faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of his four counts.
Whittemore’s current federal court case is further complicated by a bitter legal dispute with his former partners in the Wingfield Springs development, wealthy brothers Albert and Tom Seeno, owners of the Bay Area’s largest home-building company. The Seenos accuse Whittemore of stealing millions of dollars from them, while Whittemore alleges that they have ties to organized crime. It’s a messy case, to say the least.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, that Whittemore pretty much called the shots at the Legislature as the Northern Nevada representative for a powerful Las Vegas law firm, Lionel Sawyer & Collins. Among the firm’s many attorneys is Reid’s son, Rory, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 as his father was winning re-election to the U.S. Senate.
Whittemore has strong Carson City connections. His grandfather, the Rev. John Harvey, was a leading clergyman here in the early 20th century and his son, D.J., is the coach of the Western Nevada College baseball team. In fact, Whittemore Sr. financed construction of the beautiful John Harvey Field at WNC.
Here’s an example of how Whittemore operated: I well remember when Whittemore and wealthy Las Vegas liquor distributor Larry Ruvo lobbied the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency for approval of a large pier at Glenbrook, an upscale retirement community on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. Although Glenbrook residents opposed the pier, TRPA commissioners approved the new pier, the first new one at the Lake in many years. My guess is that generous campaign contributions may have had something to do with the TRPA decision.
At the time of the pier dispute, Glenbrook residents told me Whittemore and Ruvo wanted to turn the quiet retirement community into “lobbyland.” Maybe that didn’t happen, but the dynamic duo did host several high-powered political fundraisers at Glenbrook. As we know, in the world of politics, money talks.
Guy W. Farmer is a 50-year resident of Carson City.