RENO, Nev. (AP) - A former developer and lobbyist with ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nevada's political elite pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges involving campaign contributions.
Harvey Whittemore, leg chains largely concealed by his blue suit, spoke in a steady voice when questioned by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Cobb. Asked for his plea to the federal indictment, Whittemore said, "Not guilty to all four counts, your honor."
Once a partner in the prestigious law firm of Lionel, Sawyer & Collins, Whittemore stood at the podium with one of his lawyers, John Arrascada, while family members and friends sat in the front row of the small courtroom during the six-minute arraignment.
Whittemore was expected to be released later in the day on his own recognizance. An Aug. 7 trial date was set before U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks, though it's likely the trial will be postponed.
Whittemore, 59, was indicted by a federal grand jury on Wednesday on four counts related to campaign contributions made in 2007 to an unnamed elected federal official.
Prosecutors say Whittemore solicited campaign contributions from family members and employees and skirted federal election law limits by reimbursing them. He's also charged with lying to federal agencies.
Once a kingpin in state political circles, Whittemore made campaign contributions to numerous politicians, including Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. Records show only Reid received donations of more than $100,000 on a single day in 2007.
Justice Department officials accused Whittemore of concealing the scheme from the elected official who received the donations - widely believed to be Reid - along with his campaign committee and the Federal Election Commission.
Confirming Whittemore's once prominent stature, Magistrate Cobb disclosed in court Thursday that he has known Whittemore for close to 40 years and has attended social functions and other events with him. He volunteered to recuse himself, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Sue Fahami said the government did not object to Cobb's involvement in the case.
Outside the courtroom, Arrascada said, "There will be no stone left unturned in our very vigorous defense of Mr. Whittemore."
Arrascada would not say whether the defense would seek to question Reid.
If convicted, Whittemore could face up to 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
"Mr. Whittemore allegedly used his family members and employees as conduits to make illegal contributions to the campaign committee of an elected member of Congress," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a written statement.
Whittemore also "attempted to conceal his crimes by lying to the FBI," he said.
In 2007, federal election law limited campaign contributions to $4,600 from an individual and $9,200 from a couple. The law also prohibits making contributions in another person's name to hide the identity of the true donor.
Prosecutors claim Whittemore met with the elected official in February 2007 and agreed to try to raise $150,000 for the person's campaign committee.
Reid had become the Senate majority leader several weeks before, after Democrats won control of the chamber in 2006.
The following month, Whittemore solicited employees, family members and their spouses to make maximum campaign donations and reimbursed them with personal checks and wire transfers, according to the indictment.
On March 28, 2007, authorities allege, a Whittemore employee transmitted $138,000 in contributions to the elected official's campaign committee. Two weeks later, the campaign committee "unknowingly filed false reports with the FEC stating that the conduits had made contributions, when in fact, Whittemore had made them," prosecutors said.
The criminal investigation was revealed in the wake of lawsuits Whittemore and his former partners in his Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co. filed against each other earlier this year.
In a civil suit filed in state court in Clark County, Thomas Seeno and Albert Seeno Jr., who now control the company, alleged Whittemore embezzled tens of millions of dollars to support a lavish lifestyle, buy homes, subsidize a research facility at the University of Nevada, Reno, and even sponsor a pro golfer.
Whittemore and his wife then sued the Seenos in federal court, accusing them of making death threats against their family; having ties to the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and convicted felons; and forcing them through intimidation to turn over homes, cars, jewelry, money - even a Steinway piano.
Each side denies the allegations.