Harry Reid contribution raises eyebrows in attorney general race

John Hunt

John Hunt

The Democratic candidate for Nevada attorney general, John Hunt, has been stumbling to provide answers about his campaign contributions report.

The Secretary of State’s Office verified that it has launched an investigation into contributions made by associates of Vestin Mortgage of Las Vegas. Those contributions total about $160,000. Pete Ernaut, campaign chairman for Hunt’s opponent, Republican Brian Sandoval, filed the complaint. As of filing deadline, Aug. 26, Hunt had raised a total of $581,000. Since turnabout is fair play, Hunt has raised questions about Sandoval’s campaign, which has accepted almost $300,000 from the gaming industry.

The investigation into Hunt’s finances, says Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Susan Bilyeu, focuses on NRS 294A.112, which prohibits making or assisting in making a contribution in another person’s name. Ernaut claimed that some employees of Vestin Mortgage made illegal contributions on behalf of Vestin Mortage owner and CEO, Mike Shustek.

“That’s the only issue in the complaint that’s in front of us,” Bilyeu says.

The campaign-finance question has been hot in Las Vegas papers, with the Las Vegas Sun taking the lead on the issue. But there’s another question that hasn’t been raised. On March 8, Hunt’s campaign accepted a $20,000 contribution from the Searchlight Leadership Fund, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s political-action committee.

Bilyeu says that no one has raised the issue of a $20,000 contribution with the secretary.

“We would have to get a complaint before we take a look into it,” she says. “Sometimes those things happen; you don’t realize you made [too large of] a contribution, and then you correct it.”

As RN&R readers no doubt know, it is illegal to contribute or accept more than $10,000 from an individual. Incidentally, the state’s definition of contribution includes loans.

On June 6, according to Hunt’s contribution and expenditure report, $10,000 was paid back to the Searchlight Leadership Fund.

Hunt’s campaign manager, Ronni Council, says that there was no intention to break the law when the check was accepted.

“Obviously, they weren’t trying to give us more than they were allowed to give, because we gave it back,” she says. “There was no wrongdoing in that. They just cut the check, and when it was noticed it was refunded.”

In any case, 91 days is a long time to have $10,000 of someone else’s money—especially for someone campaigning to run the office that will prosecute campaign finance violations.

Tessa Hafen, Reid’s press secretary, says it was an honest mistake, brought about by the confusion between election laws for federal offices and for state offices.

“It was just confusion on how much he could give,” Hafen says. “It’s confusing with what campaign rules are where. It was a mistake, and it’s fixed now. We found out about it, and the $10,000 was returned.”

Hafen says a person who serves as comptroller with the Searchlight Leadership Fund sent the check out.

“Holly Giarraputo handles all of the checks and the FEC reports and things like that,” she said. “Anytime we need to send out money, she gets the memo to cut the check, and it goes out from her office. She’s the one who actually signed the check.”

New federal campaign finance law stipulates that federal candidates can accept only $4,000 from an individual per election cycle.

Eric Herzik, associate professor and director of graduate studies in political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, says there’s a simpler reason why Sandoval’s campaign wouldn’t raise the question with the Secretary of State. The second most powerful Democrat in the country has a long reach.

“No one’s going to look at Harry Reid,” he says. “Sandoval doesn’t want to get in a fight with Harry Reid. He wants him on the sideline of this race as much as possible.”

For those looking for in-state contributions of the Searchlight Leadership Fund, don’t look at the Federal Elections Commissions PAC Web site. Contributions made to state candidates are filed with the IRS and can be accessed at eforms.irs.gov (search “searchlight"). The $20,000 contribution appears on Searchlight’s first-quarter report.

Pete Ernaut was out of town and did not return a call for comment.