It’s really hard to determine what U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks was thinking when he sentenced Nevada power broker Harvey Whittemore to two years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The Reno Gazette-Journal quoted the judge as saying, “The primary purpose of these laws is to limit the actuality or appearance of corruption resulting from large contributions. The appearance of corruption from such a clear violation of the law … is astounding.”
We’d like to ask the judge, with all due respect, what planet has he been living on? Does justice enter into this at all? Was his statement supposed to be ironic in the wake of an election that was entirely dominated by the Citizen’s United U.S. Supreme Court decision? If individuals were afforded the same rights as corporations, Whittemore’s efforts to hide his contributions would have been utterly legal.
Essentially, what this judge said was that unlimited and anonymous money equates to speech for corporations and super-rich contributors to 501(c)4s, but not for individuals. It’s not the sentence that boggles the mind—he was guilty and a two-year sentence is only 18 months more than possible jail time for jaywalking—it’s the reasoning. Not to get too far out of the box, but this raises questions of equal protection when corporations have rights that people don’t.
But even if the judge’s reasoning for the sentence was sound, why should Whittemore go to prison? Why do we citizens have to pay for this guy’s “punishment”? The admittedly talented attorney and lobbyist could have been sentenced to work on society’s behalf for two years. Isn’t there a punishment that could have better suited the crime? He could have been sentenced to community service and instead of picking cigarette butts off the freeways, he could have been working for some nonprofit like Nevada Legal Services or United Way or a homeless advocacy group.
Does society’s need to degrade a fallen icon take precedence over simple pragmatism? The guy’s got talent, and this judge threw it away to make a political point.
But if we are to accept that individuals who act in the same manner as corporations must be prosecuted, the U.S. Attorney’s office has got some work to do. Harvey Whittemore was just one guy among many powerbrokers in Nevada. Finding anyone who thinks he’s the only one who skirted election laws is difficult. The only reason he was prosecuted was because some former business partners got angry and turned him in. Nothing will change because of Whittemore’s time in the stocks.
Allow us to make some predictions: Harvey Whittemore will do less time in jail than a drunken Santa Crawler; he will prevail in his appeal; and the question of whether citizens can contribute anonymously and generously to campaigns—just like corporations and super-rich casino owners—will be decided in a way that further erodes the ability of common citizens to run or influence this democracy.