Whittemore broke the law, but he should not do time

At his zenith, Harvey Whittemore was loud, bombastic, occasionally obnoxious.

He had power, through his clients, and he wielded it in Carson City for them. And not very quietly.

Combining a quicksilver intellect and a nonpareil work ethic, Whittemore became very wealthy, transformed himself into a developer and envisioned a bedroom community for Las Vegas called Coyote Springs.

And then it all fell apart. The recession, the fracturing of his business relationships and then…the indictment and conviction for illegal contributions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Whittemore’s descent has been Shakespearean, and on Monday, a judge will decide whether this is a morality play that ends with him in prison. Whittemore is guilty – of that there is no doubt – but the thought of him behind bars for reimbursing employees and family for contributions astonishes me.

Prison for this? It’s lunacy.

I have been thinking about this since the story first broke, almost immediately followed by politicians, including Reid, acting as if the man they once cozied up to had leprosy. I understand the standard elected official’s instinct for survival and small capability for loyalty. But the way Whittemore was treated by people he helped, as I wrote at the time, disgusts me.

This kind of violation has happened many times before, many we probably don’t know about and some that have resulted in law enforcement intervention. Heavy fines were levied on businessmen Ray Norvell ($110,000) and Jim Rhodes ($159,000) for the same offense Whittemore committed.

But prison? It’s insane.

Don’t misunderstand: I can see where the prosecution would argue that Whittemore showed a recklessness and arrogance that many, myself included, will find familiar. The argument: As a lawyer, he should have known better. As a seasoned insider, he had to know better.

But that's a bit facile, I think. I see another scenario:

Whittemore exuberantly promises Reid he will get him $150,000 – Whittemore is hardly beyond braggadocio. The quarterly FEC deadline approaches, suddenly he hasn’t gotten it done, so he rushes to cobble together the donations. Where he strayed – where he broke the law – was in reimbursing people for the money. The reason that is illegal is because it makes a mockery of the campaign contribution limits. A bunch of people didn’t give Reid $150,000; Harvey Whittemore did.

At a time when Sheldon Adelson can write a $5 million check to Newt Gingich’s SuperPAC, this seems almost laughable. If Whittemore had just waited a few years, he could have simply given the majority leader's PAC a check for the $150,000. Trust me, if it were 2015, Reid would want a lot more than that.

Yes, Whittemore should face a hefty fine. Perhaps he should have to make other forms of restitution – community service, pro bono legal work.

But prison? It’s nuts.

My old friend, Jane Ann Morrison, wrote about a federal parole officer's putative recommendation for a 51-month sentence for Whittemore. More than four years? For what he did?

As Morrison pointed out, that’s about what ex-Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera, perhaps the most corrupt of all the G-Sting defendants, got for being a public official who took bribes. Check “proportionality” in the dictionary, folks.

I have heard the speculation that this all happened because zealous prosecutors saw who the contributions went to and saw a majority leader’s head on the wall. Maybe they threw the book at Whittemore – lying to the FBI? – to induce him to give them dirt, if he had any, on Reid.

I find that all to be conspiracy theorizing, mental masturbation that may or may not be grounded in reality. But I can hear the whispers inside law enforcement: “This will send a message.” “We can’t let him skate with out prison.” “He needs to be punished.”

Punished?

I ran into Whittemore at a party and he seemed a shell of his former self, like a condemned man who was going through the motions of living. He put the best face on it, but that’s all it was: a façade.

Whittemore has lost a fortune. His reputation is in tatters. He is a convicted felon. Too many of his friends – where are you, Prince Harry? – have deserted him.

I don’t know what the appropriate punishment is. A $1 million fine, maybe. Disbarment, perhaps. But prison?

That punishment does not fit this crime.

(Pic from rgj.com.)