RENO — Citing his own potential conflicts of interest, a veteran U.S. judge put on hold Thursday the criminal prosecution of Nevada lobbyist Harvey Whittemore as well as a civil battle between the political power broker and a California construction mogul with casino interests.
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks told lawyers for businessman Albert Seeno Jr. of Concord, Calif., and Whittemore, who has close ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that he’s confident he can be fair and impartial in both the criminal and civil cases he’s presiding over.
But citing the “sensitive and high profile” nature of the cases, Hicks announced he was “conditionally recusing” himself for at least a week so they can decide whether they think he should continue in light of a variety of past business and family relationships he disclosed during a 40-minute hearing.
Among other things, Hicks said he’s known Whittemore casually probably more than 20 years. He said his brother is a partner at a law firm that has represented a Nevada casino partly owned by the Seeno family. He also said both Whittemore and Seeno ultimately may have ended up with an indirect interest in a $124,000 loan he once obtained for a condo in Las Vegas.
Hicks made the announcement at a hearing that had been scheduled Thursday on a motion by Seeno to dismiss Whittemore’s federal civil suit. But the judge said his conditional recusal also applied to the criminal case.
“I can and will be completely fair and impartial in each of these cases,” Hicks said.
“But they are obviously sensitive and high profile cases,” he said. “It is absolutely imperative ... that if there are any issues that would potentially disqualify me or any question as to whether I am qualified to sit on either case, we need to address that at an early stage.”
Hicks said that rather than put any of the lawyers in the “awkward” position of having to make a motion to toss Hicks off the case, his recusal would become permanent if his clerk had not received confidential letters from each party in each case indicating they wanted to waive the judge’s recusal.
If all four parties fail to sign off, another judge will assume the case, the letters will remain under seal and the Hicks will not be notified who took which position.
Dan Bowen, a lawyer representing Whittemore in the civil suit, indicated he would waive the recusal.
“Our side, we have absolutely no problem with continuing,” he told the judge.
Ken Robison, a lawyer for Seeno, said he respected the judge but would need to discuss the matter with his client.
“As you said, it’s a high profile, sensitive case and we have high profile, sensitive clients,” he said. “Thank you for your candid disclosures.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Myhre, who led the grand jury investigation into Whittemore’s alleged campaign fundraising efforts, said he too appreciated “the court’s candor.”
The criminal indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Reno on June 6 accuses Whittemore of devising a scheme to solicit campaign contributions from family members and employees in 2007 and skirt federal election law limits by reimbursing them.
Federal Election Commission records show Whittemore, family members and employees of his former company, Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co., contributing more than $100,000 in a single day to Reid in March 2007.
In the civil cases, the ex-business partners Whittemore and Seeno accuse each other of fraud and corruption.
Seeno and his brother, Thomas Seeno, who now control Wingfield Nevada Group and have interests in casinos in Reno, Sparks and Henderson, allege 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 in turn accuse the Seenos 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 and money.
Each side denies the allegations.