RENO, Nev. (AP) — A Nevada powerbroker who headed a billion-dollar real estate company and pulled the strings of state politics as a prominent lobbyist for more than a decade was convicted Wednesday of making illegal campaign contributions to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.
Harvey Whittemore, 59, could face up to 15 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines after a federal jury returned guilty verdicts on three counts tied to nearly $150,000 illegally funneled to Reid's re-election campaign in 2007.
Later in the day, U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks declared a mistrial on a count of lying to the FBI after jurors said they were deadlocked on that charge.
Whittemore stood with his arms behind his back and shook his head slightly after the verdicts were read. He was convicted of making excessive campaign contributions, making contributions in the name of another and causing a false statement to be made to the Federal Election Commission.
Each count carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The judge set sentencing for Sept. 23.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre said prosecutors will review the case before deciding whether to refile the charge of lying to the FBI during a February 2012 interview.
Dominic Gentile, Whittemore's lead defense counsel, said the convictions will be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals. He said a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court touches on similar issues related to the constitutionality of federal limits on campaign contributions.
Among other things, Gentile said the defense will challenge Hicks' refusal to allow the defense to reference an Alabama case against the Federal Election Commission.
"His conduct was protected by the First Amendment," Gentile told reporters at a news conference with Whittemore and his wife, Annette, shortly after leaving court.
Whittemore said he would reserve immediate comment on his conviction because of the emotional toll the two-week trial has taken on his family.
"My family and I have been through quite a bit," he said.
He said he will hold a news conference when all appeals are resolved to give the "complete and true story about who was behind this and how it got started."
Annette Whittemore said the couple is fortunate to have such a close, "strong-willed" family to support them.
"Harvey said throughout the trial the one thing they can't take away is our family and friends," she said.
Prosecutors said Whittemore gave money to family members and employees in 2007 to make contributions he had promised to Reid while concealing himself as the true source to skirt campaign finance laws.
Defense attorneys argued Whittemore broke no laws by giving $5,000 checks as gifts to family members and as gifts or bonuses to 29 employees and their spouses, who then each wrote checks for the maximum allowable $4,600 to the Senate majority leader's campaign fund, Friends of Harry Reid.
Myrhe said he hopes the verdicts send a strong message that U.S. campaign finance violations are serious offenses that will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
"These laws exist to protect the election process from undue influence and to provide transparency to the voting public," he told reporters outside the courthouse.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Mythili Raman said Whittemore used "straw donors" to evade federal contribution limits.
"The cornerstones of our campaign finance laws are contribution limits and transparency, and Mr. Whittemore's crime was designed to undermine both," Mythili said in a statement from Washington.
Prosecutors said in closing arguments Tuesday that Whittemore had been the "king of the hill" in Nevada political circles, an insider who had worked his way onto the short list of many U.S. senators and representatives as someone to call when they needed to quickly find donors.
Whittemore once hosted an event for Sen. John Edwards, then a Democratic presidential hopeful, and a fundraiser at Reid's request for then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. He also helped arrange a reception attended by President Clinton during an environmental summit at Lake Tahoe.
"When he made these contributions, he was the ultimate insider," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan said during his closing argument. "He was making millions of dollars and getting personal thank-you notes from the most prominent politicians in the country."
Reid had no comment on the verdicts, said Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman for the senator.
Reid was not accused of any wrongdoing. He has said he was unaware of any potential problems with the money he received.
"I received $25 million. He raised $150,000," Reid told the Las Vegas Sun earlier this week. "I had money coming in from other places."
Myhre told jurors Whittemore was driven solely by greed — "not to get more money but greed in the sense of more power."
"It's about trying to be on the short list that senators and congressmen call when they need money," he said. "That's why he did it."
Myhre said after the verdicts that he couldn't comment on why the prosecution chose not to call Reid as a witness, or whether the case involving Whittemore has been completely closed.