Reid Ally Target of FBI Probe into Campaign Donations

Dirty Harry’s developer friend Harvey Whittemore benefitted from connections

February 13, 2012

A major Democratic power-player in Nevada is under FBI investigation for illegal campaign contributions.

Harvey Whittemore, former lobbyist and land developer who has close ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is being investigated by federal agents for reportedly funneling donations through family members to skirt campaign finance laws, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on Friday.

Whittemore and his immediate family have contributed more than $195,000 to Democratic political campaigns and committees since 2007, according to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. The FBI is investigating whether Whittemore engaged in so-called "conduit contributions": indirect payments in which an individual asks a friend or family member to make a donation in return for reimbursement of some kind.

Records show Whittemore’s wife, Annette, and their children—Andrea, Chase, DJ, Natalie, and Scott—have each generously donated to Democrats, as have Whittemore’s sister Ellen, DJ’s wife Alicia, Scott’s wife Kristin, and Natalie's husband Todd. Top recipients include President Obama, Reid, and former Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.), who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee from 2007-2011.

The FBI probe also focuses on Whittemore’s former employees at his land development firm, Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co. The Review-Journal reports that on March 31, 2007, Reid’s reelection campaign received $115,000 from roughly two dozen Wingfield employees, including Whittemore family members. The FBI is looking into allegations that Whittemore reimbursed employees for their donations with personal or company funds.

Reid’s ties with Whittemore have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. All four of the Nevada lawmaker’s sons have worked for Whittemore’s former employer, the Nevada lobbying firm Lionel, Sawyer & Collins. One of them, Leif, was Whittemore’s personal attorney. Several years ago, he represented Whittemore in negotiations with the federal government over a controversial land development in Coyote Springs, Nev.

The $30 billion golf course community, covering 43,000 acres in the Nevada desert, directly benefitted from actions Sen. Reid, then a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, took to remove certain regulatory burdens. Reid at one point recommended waiving all state and federal fees to allow Whittemore to develop the land free of charge, though the developer ultimately agreed to pay $10 million. Meanwhile, Whittemore family members and employees gave generously to Reid’s campaign and leadership PAC.

More recently, the massive Coyote Springs development has agreed to house a 960-megawatt solar thermal power plant operated by BrightSource Energy, the recipient of $1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed loans from the Department of Energy. In his book, Throw Them All Out, Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer cited the company as a prominent example of cronyism made possible by the $787 billion stimulus package, which Reid supported.

The largest investor in Brightsource (with a 25 percent stake) is VantagePoint Venture Partners, a firm whose principal, Sanjay Wagle, helped raised millions for President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and even served as a "renewable energy grants adviser" at the DOE.

Reid is an avid supporter of the BrightSource project and most other aspects of Obama’s "green" energy agenda. The green industry is also an enthusiastic supporter of Reid’s. BrightSource executives have given thousands to Reid’s campaign, and even hosted fundraising events for him in the past. In 2010, the Nevada Democrat received more than $90,000 from alternative energy companies, the most of any lawmaker during that cycle (and more than double the second-highest recipient). The Solar Energy Industries Association named him "Solar Champion of the Year" in March 2010.

Reid’s office said late Friday that the senator has donated all contributions from Whittemore and his wife to charity, and "will continue to review other contributions associated with Mr. Whittemore, and treat them appropriately," according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.