"I've taken the liberty of shortening the talking points and making them sound more conciliatory," said John Reeder, who's in the EPA's congressional relations office. When talking with the senators, "the administrator needs to hear them out and not take an argumentative stance," he said. "Let me know if you have any heartburn over this."
When Johnson talked to the two senators, they reiterated developers' complaints about the EPA's regional office and expressed the developers' concern about their ability to get permits in the future.
"It was very unusual for two senators to go directly to the administrator," Strauss, the EPA regional official, said.
At some point in the process, Leif Reid called his father's office about the permit issue. Sen. Reid's office says the call had no effect on the senator's actions.
Office Lobbying Rule
In 2001, the senator's office established a rule that family members could lobby his office but could not get special treatment. In 2002, responding to questions by The Times, the rule was changed to prohibit any lobbying of Sen. Reid's office by his family.
"For the last four years, our office has had a policy that Reid family members are not to lobby the office on business matters, even if those matters benefit Nevada," Susan McCue, Reid's chief of staff, said last week.
"Leif is not a lobbyist, but he should not have called our office. I have reminded Leif of this policy to prevent future calls," she said in a statement. Leif Reid did not respond to questions.
The contacts by Leif Reid and others "were not an attempt to have Sen. Reid's office direct the outcome of the federal permitting process," Whittemore said.
As it happened, by the time Sens. Reid and Ensign had their conversation with the head of the EPA, Whittemore's permit problem was all but over.
On Sept. 16, Whittemore, Leif Reid and others had met with EPA and other federal officials at the site and the atmosphere became conciliatory.
Coyote Springs agreed to leave several washes untouched, reduced the number of acres of waterways to be filled in and pledged to make environmental improvements on 19 acres of other wash land.
And Whittemore promised not to disturb the Pahranagat Wash, which runs through the site. Since Pahranagat is subject to flash flooding, development there was impractical, but Whittemore made its protected status official.
"They took our concerns seriously," Vendlinski said.
For their part, the regional officials were not looking for a fight. Whittemore had demonstrated that he could bring Sens. Reid and Ensign into the game.
Privately, some regional EPA officials said they knew their superiors in Washington would not support a hard line on aquatic resources.
The regional officials not only withdrew their objections, but in April 2006 they also gave Whittemore's project an award for "environmentally sensitive improvements" in its plans. A smiling Leif Reid accepted the award.
"One year and $1 million in consulting fees later, we got our permit," Whittemore said ruefully in an interview in May.
"It is the right thing to do," he said, "and there is an economic incentive in making the project proceed."
As Coyote Springs grows onto the Lincoln County portion of the site, more permits will be needed. But Whittemore's dream is on its way to coming true.
Looking back, he expresses pride in the achievement, and in how far he went to meet environmental and other concerns.
"The final product is the most environmentally friendly development ever proposed in Nevada," Whittemore said. "I want people to understand that I am the platinum standard."
Neubauer reported from Coyote Springs and Cooper from Washington.
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Cutting red tape
Nevada lobbyist Harvey Whittemore controls a 42,842-acre project called Coyote Springs, northeast of Las Vegas. These maps show original obstacles to development of the project and how they were dealt with.
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