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Former Nev powerbroker guilty in contribution case

Scott Sonner, Associated Press

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- A former Nevada powerbroker was convicted on Wednesday of making illegal campaign contributions to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

A federal jury reached the verdict in the case against real estate developer and once powerful lobbyist Harvey Whittemore.

The jury returned unanimous guilty verdicts on charges 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.

Whittemore faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

The jury was deadlocked on a fourth charge of making a false statement to the FBI.

U.S. District Court Judge Larry Hicks said he would poll the jurors to determine if they might be able to reach a decision on that charge.

Prosecutors say Whittemore gave $150.000 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.

Reid has not been accused of any wrongdoing and did not testify during the trial. He has said he was unaware of any potential problems with the money he received..

Defense attorneys say 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.

"I received $25 million. He raised $150,000," Reid previously told the Las Vegas Sun. "I had money coming in from other places."

During the trial, lawyers on both sides posed different versions of Whittemore's campaign finance saga to the jury, alluding to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the magical tale of the "Wizard of Oz" during closing arguments on Tuesday.

The defense acknowledged Whittemore suggested contributions be made to Reid, but made it clear it was voluntary and — most importantly — didn't try to cover up the political fundraising he had been doing for nearly three decades.

"Adam and Eve had a wonderful life, but when they do something wrong, they knew. Because when they did something wrong, they hid," Dominic Gentile, Whittemore's lead lawyer, said in his closing argument. "It's important to remember in this case because Harvey Whittemore did nothing to conceal, did nothing to hide."

Gentile said one of the prosecution's key pieces of evidence is a document pulled from Whittemore's files detailing the contributions he bundled and had shipped off to Reid in March 2007.

"If Harvey Whittemore is as smart and as clever as the government says, if he was a schemer, that folder would have been deep-sixed a long time ago," the lawyer said.

Defense witnesses testified that Whittemore, former chief of the Wingfield Nevada Group, was a man of integrity who was generous with his money and routinely gave large sums to charities.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre countered that the focus on Whittemore's character was a "smoke screen" reminiscent of the wizard in the 1939 motion picture who helped Dorothy and Toto find their way home from the Land of Oz.

"The witnesses honestly expressed their impressions, but they have not seen all the evidence," Myhre said. "They see one thing — the facade on the wall and the smoke and mirrors, not the man behind the curtain with the levers funneling money into the Reid campaign."

Myhre said Whittemore used his power and well-connected friends to carry out his scheme but the paper trail of his financial transactions finally caught up with him.

"This is not the board room at Wingfield Nevada Group. It's not the cloakroom at the Nevada Legislature or the Verandah Room at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas," Myhre said.

"Out there money talks. Who your friends are matter. This is a courtroom. All that matters here is the evidence. The only thing that matters is the truth."

The jury deliberated for more than four hours on Tuesday and reconvened Wednesday morning.