RENO — The trial for an ex-Nevada developer and once powerful lobbyist accused of breaking federal campaign finance laws opened Wednesday with lawyers arguing whether there were any strings attached to money Harvey Whittemore gave his employees while suggesting they contribute to Sen. Harry Reid’s re-election in 2007.
Prosecutors said Whittemore wrote checks only to workers at his real estate company — $5,000 if single, $10,000 if married — whom he knew would not refuse the request partly because they were highly dependent on him financially.
But defense lawyer Dominic Gentile said it’s not a question of whether they would refuse, but whether they could.
He agreed Whittemore probably sought out people who wouldn’t say “no” and in fact anticipated most would go through with helping Reid.
“But it isn’t a matter of the fact they wouldn’t say no. It’s a matter of whether they couldn’t say no,” Gentile told the jury during Wednesday’s opening statements at the trial expected to last at least two weeks. “They made a voluntarily choice and made a contribution.”
Whittemore is accused of carrying out an illegal scheme to mask his own contributions by effectively laundering them through his family and employees at his Wingfield Nevada Group.
He 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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre said Whittemore acted in desperation because he had promised Reid during a luncheon meeting at the upscale Four Seasons in Las Vegas in February 2007 that he would raise $150,000 for his longtime friend and Senate majority leader by the end of the next month.
But four days before the March 31 deadline, he had raised little if any of the money he had promised.
“As the sand in the hour glass was running out, he had a choice to make,” Myhre said. He said Whittemore could either tell Reid the money wouldn’t be coming, or recruit his workers, family members and many of their spouses to serve as illegal “straw” or “conduit” donors.
On March 27, 2007, he pulled out his checkbook and started writing the $5,000 and $10,000 to a total of 29 people. Within days, all of whom turned around and wrote checks for the maximum $4,600 to Reid’s re-election campaign, Myhre said.
Gentile said it was all completely legal. The checks were written by the people who voluntarily were making the contributions, he said.
“He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to give you some money because I want you to give it to Harry Reid.’ That he could not do. That would be a conduit — money that had been given to those people conditionally,” Gentile said.