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Desert Connections

August 20, 2006|Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writers

Just before that bill was passed, Whittemore announced a deal with Westwood-based Pardee Homes to become Coyote Springs' main residential developer. He also announced that Jack Nicklaus would design a set of golf courses to be known as the Bear Trail.

As the effort to clear a path for Coyote Springs moved forward, Whittemore showed his appreciation for the help Nevada politicians in Washington were giving him, especially Reid. Ensign and others got contributions, but significantly less than those given to Reid.

Political Funding

Since 2000, Whittemore, his wife and the Coyote Springs company have given Reid's senatorial campaign and political action committees at least $45,000. That included $35,000 for Reid's leadership PAC, the Searchlight Leadership Fund, which helped him advance as a Senate leader. Most of that money was contributed in 2002 shortly after Reid introduced the Clark County land bill.

In 2000, Whittemore gave an additional $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Reid promoted as a party leader. Prior to 2000, the Whittemores had given Reid and his Senate campaign committee a total of $6,500, plus $5,000 for his leadership PAC.

Whittemore also helped Reid's sons, all of whom at various times have worked for the law firm in which he is a senior partner, Lionel, Sawyer and Collins. Rory Reid is a partner in the firm. When he ran successfully for the Clark County Board of Commissioners, Whittemore contributed $5,000.

He also gave Josh Reid $5,000 for an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the city council in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. Rory and Josh Reid have been active in Democratic politics.

Jon Summers, an aide to Sen. Reid, said, "Harvey Whittemore has a history of giving money to political candidates far and wide -- and to both political parties.

"However," he added, "as a registered Democrat, it is only logical that he would give a larger percentage to Democratic candidates and committees."

By the spring of 2005, only one step remained: securing a permit to deal with the stream beds and washes.

That process, handled by the Army Corps of Engineers, seemed routine, but in late July trouble struck.

Alexis Strauss, an official in the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office that oversees Nevada, notified the Corps of Engineers that her office had concerns.

"We respectfully object to the issuance of a permit for the proposed project because the authorization may result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance," Strauss wrote.

The phrase, "aquatic resources of national importance," was a designation that gave regional EPA officials maximum leverage to press for environmental concessions.

Rarely Invoked

Invoking such aquatic resources is rare -- done in only 1% or 2% of the permit applications that the regional office reviews every year, according to Tim Vendlinski, head of wetland regulation. "They weren't happy when they got that letter," he said of Whittemore and Coyote Springs.

Whittemore had not seen the EPA move coming and he called Nevada officials, his fellow-developers, Sens. Ensign and Reid, and Leif Reid.

Less than a week after the issue arose, Sen. Reid's then-top aide for energy and environment, Peter Umhofer, called the regional office. Whittemore said he had asked Umhofer to set up a meeting for him with federal officials. Umhofer also contacted the Corps of Engineers.

Officials at both agencies got the message that Reid was deeply interested in Coyote Springs, and Vendlinski made clear that Umhofer's intervention had upped the stakes.

"Any time a congressman calls, it kicks it up above my level. We treat correspondence from staff with as much weight as from congressmen," Vendlinski said.

At an Aug. 16, 2005, meeting, Whittemore, Leif Reid and their consultants tried to persuade the EPA to drop the aquatic resource designation. "They saw our letter as something that would bring their project to a halt," said John Kemmerer, the senior EPA official at the meeting. "They were interested in us rescinding it."

The EPA officials refused.

"It was a bitter pill for them," Vendlinski said. "The meeting did not end with a group hug."

Nonetheless, the developer and the federal agencies agreed to meet again in September.

Meantime, Sens. Reid and Ensign called EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson in Washington. The senators said Nevada developers were complaining about undue delays on permits.

Whittemore says he did not instigate the phone call by Reid and Ensign.

On Sept. 20, two days before Reid and Ensign were to confer with Johnson, three Reid staffers called the EPA regional officials to express Reid's concerns about permits, including developers' complaints that the EPA had become more demanding.

The next day, EPA regional officials sent briefing papers to Washington to help Johnson prepare for his talk with the senators. An e-mail from a senior EPA official made clear which way the wind was blowing.

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