Harvey Whittemore was long known as the most powerful lobbyist in Nevada. Nicknamed “the 64th legislator” in Carson City — whose two legislative houses have a total of 63 elected representatives — he is also widely known to be a close personal friend and, one could say, something of a business associate of Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
So you might think it was awkward for Reid when Whittemore was convicted in a federal court Wednesday for fraudulently funneling $133,000 to Reid’s 2010 reelection campaign, a contest Reid won by more than five percentage points despite being behind in the polls right up to the end. But Reid, who has always been comfortable working with lobbyists, isn’t cutting Whittemore loose just yet.
“This trial will determine whether or not [Whittemore] followed the law,” Reid told a Nevada news show Tuesday, before the jury reached its verdict. “It won’t change my impression of Harvey Whittemore, or [his wife] Annette. I think they are wonderful people.”
“I appreciate the Whittemore family,” Reid added. “Over the years, they have helped me and I appreciate it very, very much.”
Those years of help and appreciation are certainly mutual, as Reid’s history of intervening on behalf of Whittemore’s interests is as long and checkered as Whittemore’s history of raising funds for Reid.
Whittemore got started as a lobbyist in 1983 at age 26, working for former Nevada governor Grant Sawyer’s firm (where Whittemore was later a senior partner). Although Whittemore once said he “never felt [he] had a natural affinity” for the job, by the Nineties he was a fixture in Carson City, wining and dining legislators on behalf of his gaming and tobacco clients, whipping for votes, even writing legislation. Whittemore was so omnipresent on the floor of the statehouse that glass barriers placed between legislators and the public-seating gallery came to be known as “Harvey’s walls.”
During this time, the peak of Whittemore’s powers as a lobbyist proper, his relationship with Reid grew tighter. When Reid made his move for a Senate leadership position in 1997, he formed the Searchlight Leadership PAC to bankroll the palm greasing it would require. Whittemore and his then-client, casino magnate Steve Wynn, were among the earliest donors, maxing out their contributions. In 1998, Whittemore attended a private meeting in Reid’s Senate offices, ostensibly on the subject of transportation problems in Nevada, with Clinton transportation secretary Rodney Slater, then-mayor Jeff Griffin of Reno, and representatives from every member of the Nevada congressional delegation (except Republican congressman John Ensign, whose staffers Reid’s aides had barred from attending).
Soon, the Whittemore-Reid partnership became a family affair, with Whittemore at one time or another employing all four of Reid’s sons. In 2001, Rory Reid even took a lobbying job at Whittemore’s firm while he was chairman of Nevada’s Democratic party. In an e-mail circulated by a political opponent, Reid the Younger was quoted as saying, “I don’t think (being a lobbyist) presents a problem.” The quote continued: “I believe in the clients I represent. I will do what I can to help the party, and I believe in the issues I am lobbying on. Lobbyists are part of the process.”
The relationship turned even sketchier when Whittemore largely stopped lobbying on behalf of clients and turned to lobbying on behalf of himself, in his new capacity as a real-estate tycoon. In the early 2000s, Whittemore led the development of Coyote Springs, Nevada’s largest master-planned community, where 50,000 homes and ten golf courses sprawled over 42,800 acres 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2003, Reid sponsored legislation that would have moved a federal utility right-of-way from Whittemore’s property onto a federally protected “wilderness study” area, freeing up 11,000 acres for development. The move was hidden in technical language within a larger bill and initially would have come at no charge to Whittemore or his partners. But when the Department of the Interior objected, and the Los Angeles Times reported on the scheme, Reid had two changes of heart, first agreeing that the developers should pay for the move themselves and then withdrawing the right-of-way provision altogether.
But Reid was back at it the next year, this time with a proposal that required Whittemore to pay “fair market value” for the easement but defining that value based on a 1988 appraisal adjusted for inflation — a mere $160,000 on land that the Los Angeles Times reported was probably worth closer to $5 million. The measure eventually passed and became law, albeit with the Department of the Interior, not Harvey’s friend Harry, calculating the worth of the easement.
Incidentally, Whittemore has proven to be a poorer land developer than an influence peddler. Coyote Springs, which was intended to sustain a population of 150,000, is today little more than a single Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course surrounded by desert, abandoned infrastructure, and thousands of empty housing footprints 25 miles from the nearest town. And Whittemore’s business partners are suing him for $60 million, claiming he embezzled millions in company funds, donating them to politicians and otherwise misusing them. Whittemore’s longtime personal lawyer on the Coyote Springs deal? None other than Leif Reid, Harry’s eldest.
The campaign-finance unpleasantness started right around the time the economy, and Coyote Springs, went south. Prosecutors say that in 2007, Whittemore promised to bundle $150,000 for Reid. But when he couldn’t deliver, he reached into his own pockets to make up the difference. And to get around contribution limits, he used employees as fences, reimbursing them for donations made in their names. Reid has long since donated the money raised by Whittemore to charity, but he won’t distance himself from the man, going so far as to tell reporters he would have happily testified on his friend’s behalf. Reid wasn’t called, but maybe he will be during the sentencing phase. Whittemore is facing a maximum of $750,000 in fines and 15 years in a federal penitentiary.
Worse comes to worst, maybe Reid can come up with some legislative language that relocates the prison walls.
— Dan Foster is news editor of National Review Online.