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September 2, 2014

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Jon Ralston:

How Harvey Whittemore became a leper

For years, Harvey Whittemore was many things to politicians — a masterful lobbyist, a visionary developer and, best of all, a reliable contributor.

Whittemore’s ebullience and intellect endeared him to many elected officials, who often counted him as a friend and counselor as well as donor. His insinuation into their lives brought him immense power and them hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars. The man everyone simply called or knew as Harvey was ubiquitous, whether lobbying in Carson City or building at Coyote Springs.

Now, like Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey, he is invisible, turned into a not-so-benign ghost because of three scarlet letters that see-no-evil politicians cannot abide: F-B-I.

I make no judgment yet on the sulfurous allegations that have made their way into court documents and the media as part of the acidic breakup of Whittemore and his business partners. But without knowing exactly what Whittemore may or may not have done (the schadenfreude contagion notwithstanding) and putting aside years of cozy, unquestioning interaction, suddenly these politicians have adopted a guilty-until-proven-innocent posture and shed Harvey’s campaign cash like it was mob money.

This I do judge. And I judge it to be craven, pathetic and phony.

The default response here, as it is in almost any situation for elected officials, is not whether someone they have consorted with for years did anything wrong. No, it is a simple calculus that is brought to bear: How does this make me look? This solipsistic reflex thus allows them — to borrow the immortal words of ex-Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, who offered them to Ferdinand Marcos when his time was up — to cut and cut cleanly.

And yet it is so dirty.

After a series of Las Vegas Review-Journal stories saying the FBI was investigating Whittemore’s campaign contribution activity, prominent politicians announced they were giving his money to charity rather than be sullied by it. Note that Whittemore has not been charged with a crime; only allegations have been made that he facilitated so-called “conduit contributions,” which would entail telling people to contribute and then reimbursing them.

What struck me is how quickly the politicians, especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley, returned the money and how little their spokesmen wanted to discuss it — both said it was “appropriate” to get rid of the money, but neither would tell me how much Whittemore cash they had given up. Believe me, I tried. You would have thought I had asked for the White House gate code.

Sen. Dean Heller’s folks told me Tuesday they were giving $27,600 in Whittemore cash to charity — the total given by him and his family members since 2008. Why? “We felt it was the right thing to do,” a spokesman told me.

Really?

I still have no clear answer what the standard being used here might be — beyond, of course, the usual one of posterior protection.

Reid’s behavior is especially noteworthy. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times detailed how he had helped Whittemore develop Coyote Springs and how Whittemore had given tens of thousands of dollars to the senator and his PAC.

I asked Reid about it at the time on “Face to Face,” and he responded: “It was really a positive piece. It said a guy years ago had a dream, Harvey Whittemore, and he’s building a city in the desert ... Why would anyone not want to help with this?”

Just a year after that interview, according to the RJ’s report, Whittemore bundled six figures to Reid on a single day — contributions the FBI believes may be conduit contributions.

Suspicious, perhaps, but far from proven. Yet, Reid has now decided to be less than helpful to the man he once bragged about helping. Of course, in 2007, his campaign did not find those multiple donations a bit suspicious. Now, their eyes are opened and they are ... shocked.

Best — or worst — of all, the state Democratic Party — aka Harry Reid’s unofficial money-laundering organization — announced, “It appears that the Nevada State Democratic Party has not received any contributions in violation of campaign finance laws. Therefore, there is no reason to dispose of them at this time.”

Love the use of “appears” and “at this time” — always good to have wiggle room. But it is the intellectual contortions that flabbergast me. Reid and Berkley essentially call Whittemore a crook by returning money — how “appropriate” of them — but the party, an organization Reid controls, gets to keep the tens of thousands invisible Harvey has given.

What was that standard again?

Maybe word has yet to reach Washington that another pretty serious federal agency, the SEC, is investigating two Nevadans more prominent than Whittemore: Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, over their Macau dealings. Nothing’s been proven, but no matter.

Ready to return all of that cash, everybody?

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  1. Jon, I disagree with you often, but this time I have only this to say: keep digging and dig deep! Good job!

  2. Very good piece. I usually don't agree with you, but this one is right on! Whittemore is being judged before charges are even brought. Shows you the loyalty that politicians have. Or maybe it shows that they know more than they are saying?

  3. The question Jon should be asking these politicians is not how much money they received from Whittemore, but what favors they did for him because of these contributions. If they are going to give the money back, they should also undo the favors.