Two views on Harvey

Harvey Whittemore is Nevada’s most powerful gambling industry lobbyist—a controversial role in itself.

Not surprisingly, by naming Whittemore as its Alumnus of the Year, the University of Nevada Alumni Association has stirred up a dust storm, earning both praise and criticism.

“This is a person who has left the university and has done quite well,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor who nominated Whittemore for the award. “The award is based on what he has accomplished in his own right.”

But with Nevada’s education and social service programs facing dire budgetary crises in the coming years, awarding this distinction to a casino lobbyist adds insult to injury, say critics like Jake Highton, a UNR journalism professor who writes a column in the Sparks Tribune.

“What has he done for UNR in the counting house?” Highton asks in his column. “The university and state budget would not be so terribly straitened if Whittemore wasn’t such a Cerebus for the casinos.”

OK, whether Whittemore is a three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell isn’t really the issue. A study cited in Highton’s column, though, shows that Nevada rates low nationally in funding of primary education and social services. Yet, Highton notes, Nevada casinos pay the lowest gross gaming taxes.

“The casinos are leeches,” Highton writes. “And Whittemore is the head leech, bleeding the state to such an extent that it relies on a regressive sales tax rather than a progressive income tax.”

Herzik argued that the award does not reflect the clients and policies Whittemore advocates, but rather is a reflection of his own personal achievement. “It’s two separate issues,” Herzik said. “You need to look at the bigger picture.”

Herzik said that in the past some might have criticized the Alumni Council for similar awards bestowed upon state Sen. Bill Raggio and Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa because of party affiliation or voting records. However, he said, whether one supports their politics or not, most would agree that these individuals are examples of successful UNR alumni.

“Should there be a litmus test for this award?” Herzik asked. “Jake is entitled to his opinion. The casino industry is a very legitimate business in Nevada.”

Whittemore has been generous to the university, Herzik said, regularly contributing to the Athletic Booster Association and recently giving $25,000 to the Department of Political Science.

Whittemore, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974, is an attorney for Lionel, Sawyer & Collins, one of the state’s most prestigious law firms. The firm also employs a former Nevada senator as well as three sons of Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

A towering figure at the state capitol, Whittemore has a client list that includes various gambling, tobacco and alcoholic beverage interests. He’s helped pass several pieces of controversial legislation in front of the Nevada Legislature.

In 1995, for example, he gained victory for the “Tailhook Bill,” which exempted Nevada casinos from liability claims. The legislation was a response to a lawsuit filed by a former U.S. Navy pilot, a woman, against a Las Vegas casino where she was sexually assaulted.

He also put the kibosh on wording in anti-tobacco bills that would have allowed local governments the ability to regulate tobacco products.

And he pushed through a bill in 1999 allowing a Las Vegas casino to charge admission to its multi-million-dollar art collection and still be eligible for a $15 million sales tax break.

The university system has received similar criticism for honoring another gambling lobbyist last year, when the Board of Regents named Billy Vassiliadis, president of R&R Partners, “Distinguished Nevadan” for his firm’s efforts in passing a Clark County school bond.

“Lobbyists aren’t evil,” Whittemore has told reporters. “They are an important part of the process.”

In Highton’s view, though, Whittemore is an “evil genius who tells lawmakers how to vote—or else.”

When put that way, it could almost be considered a compliment.