Whittemore lawsuits moving into stranger than fiction territory
Steve Marcus / FILE
But for sheer over-the-topness, look no further than the new lawsuits pitting Reno-area attorney, developer and super lobbyist Harvey Whittemore against his former partners.
The lawsuits, which started flying last week, read like criminal indictments with charges of embezzlement, death threats and organized crime ties.
However, they’re only civil cases full of unproven allegations and it’s unknown whether law enforcement agencies and gaming regulators — which are fully aware of the charges — will actually do anything about the charges.
In the meantime, Nevadans can be sure these suits will be among the nastiest to be litigated in recent memory.
The thing that makes them so newsworthy is that the man in the spotlight, Whittemore, is widely regarded as one of the most powerful Nevadans with his lucrative lobbying business, high-profile real estate developments and the medical institute he and his wife, Annette, helped found in Reno, the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease.
The institute plays a prominent role in one of the lawsuits pitting Harvey and Annette Whittemore against former business partners Thomas Seeno, Walnut Creek, Calif.; and his brother Albert Seeno Jr., Concord, Calif.
Three limited liability companies that include the Seenos filed suit against the Whittemores last week in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas.
The suit charges that after Harvey Whittemore sold interests in several companies to the Seenos beginning after 2003, mainly in Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Co. LLC, the Seenos "began noticing discrepancies in Wingfield’s financial books and records."
An investigation then led the Seenos to believe Harvey Whittemore was involved in "misappropriation, breach of fiduciary duties and embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars."
Some of the companies involved in the dispute are a Dr Pepper/7Up bottler in Reno and a company called Coyote Springs Investment LLC.
Coyote Springs Investment LLC and its sister company, Coyote Springs Land Co. LLC, are already tied up in litigation with their development partner, Pardee Homes, over problems at the Coyote Springs housing development north of Las Vegas and west of Mesquite.
Among the alleged problems at Coyote Springs, now controlled by the Seenos, the lawsuit said, is that Whittemore personally received $1.32 million in lobbying payments from Pardee Homes.
"The transaction between Wingfield and Pardee is a complicated, multimillion-dollar transaction that is crucial to the success of Wingfield’s business interests," the lawsuit against the Whittemores said. "Whittemore negotiated the transaction on behalf of Wingfield while receiving substantial personal compensation from the 'opposing' party. This was a blatant conflict of interest in Whittemore’s role as an attorney and fiduciary to the Seenos."
The Seenos’ lawsuit further alleged "embezzlement of Wingfield money for personal meals, entertainment and personal endeavors" and "political fundraisers and political parties," and diversion of equipment and assets "to the Whittemore Peterson Institute, family, friends and personal causes without consent."
The suit alleged Wingfield improperly paid the salaries of Whittemore Peterson Institute personnel and that the institute used Wingfield aircraft for flights valued at more than $346,000, but hasn’t paid Wingfield for these flights.
In addition, a public relations company working for Wingfield also did work for Whittemore Peterson Institute and the Whittemores’ personal family foundation — with Wingfield picking up the tab, the suit said.
The Whittemores last week denied the lawsuit allegations and on Wednesday, their attorney hit back with a federal lawsuit accusing the Seeno brothers, plus a son of Albert Seeno Jr., of racketeering and using threats of violence to coerce the Whittemores into turning over assets to the Seenos.
The Whittemores’ attorneys at the law firm Bowen Hall in Reno told a much different story than what the Seenos had said in their lawsuit.
"The Seenos are billionaire developers from Northern California who have been accused of having organized crime connections as well a close relationship with the California motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels. For over a full year now, the Whittemores have been living under the threat of death, serious bodily injury and/or criminal and civil prosecution because of actions threatened by the Seenos," the suit says.
In Harvey Whittemore’s version of the dispute, the Wingfield company — named for a community in Sparks — was worth $500 million to $1 billion prior to the disputes erupting between the Whittemores and the two wealthy Seeno brothers who had bought into the business.
Besides Coyote Springs, Wingfield included other real estate developments and several small businesses.
While the Seenos claim Whittemore had embezzled from their company, Whittemore said in Wednesday’s lawsuit that Wingfield actually owes him about $30 million.
The Whittemore suit said Albert Seeno Jr., after becoming disgruntled with his investment in Wingfield, started falsely accusing Harvey Whittemore of embezzlement, fraud and other criminal activity.
"Albert Seeno Jr. threatened to go to the FBI with information that he alleged he had regarding these alleged improprieties; that he would personally bring down every member of the political 'machine' in Nevada including references to U.S. senators," the suit says.
"In the course of this threat, he asked whether Mr. Whittemore believed in God; whether Mr. Whittemore went to church; and said that Mr. Whittemore should gather his flock on Sunday and pray," the suit says.
"At the conclusion of these threats, he reminded Mr. Whittemore of the threats he had made about murdering his own brother, Thomas Seeno, with his own bare hands and then threatened Mr. Whittemore’s life and the lives of his entire family if he did not do as he was expressly instructed by Albert Seeno Jr.," the suit said, adding this happened in August 2010 and Whittemore reported this alleged threat to police.
The suit also says Whittemore had borrowed about $20 million from Thomas Seeno and that the Seenos then used this debt to coerce Whittemore to turn over assets to the Seenos and to remove the Whittemores from Wingfield.
The suit claims Thomas and Albert Seeno Jr. and Seeno Jr.'s son Albert Seeno III had conspired to defraud Whittemore of his interest in Wingfield and reiterates allegations that the two Albert Seenos threatened to kill Whittemore and his family if he didn't follow their instructions.
"This is a case involving racketeering and extortion based on threats of death and severe bodily harm made by Albert Seeno Jr. and Albert Seeno III, against attorney and businessman Harvey Whittemore and his family," Wednesday's lawsuit says.
"The Whittemores, operating under these threats of criminal prosecution, death and serious bodily injury, commenced transferring assets to Wingfield and to defendant Tom Seeno, in payment of his lawfully incurred debt to Tom Seeno," the suit says. "The Seenos have directed their employees to the Whittemores’ homes to intimidate them and force them to give up assets, including jewelry, art and automobiles under the continued threat of bodily injury."
In other extraordinary allegations, the suit says:
• A "large, very ominous and burly man" named "Ray" required Harvey Whittemore to open a safe in his home and that the man then took jewelry and cash.
• The Seenos had a Wingfield employee break into a Whittemore home in Las Vegas and remove certain computer equipment. The suit claims "Albert Seeno III orchestrated this robbery and remained in a car outside the residence while the theft was in process."
The suit includes allegations that "Albert Seeno Jr. and Albert Seeno III are associated with organized crime networks, have associated with and are associating with known felons and are currently, along with Doe (unnamed) defendants, under investigation by the FBI and IRS, and were raided by agents of the FBI, IRS and the Secret Service."
In yet another startling allegation, the Whittemore suit claims the Seenos are now trying to "intentionally devalue the assets of Wingfield or claim fraud by the Whittemores, especially at the Coyote Springs development, so that they can improperly claim tax benefits to the IRS and receive huge tax write-offs in the hundreds of millions of dollars to be offset by gains in other Seeno companies."
The Whittemore suit also said Thomas Seeno and Albert Seeno Jr. own and operate several Nevada casinos, including the Peppermill Resort and Casino in Reno, the Rainbow Club in Henderson and Western Village Casino in Sparks — an indication state gaming regulators will be paying close attention to any allegations of wrongdoing in the suits.
The Seenos’ attorneys haven’t yet responded to Wednesday’s lawsuit.
When they do, there’s likely to be yet another round of mudslinging in a case that’s just warming up.
The Whittemore Peterson Institute, in the meantime, in recent months has been dealing with its own controversies related to what critics called its flawed study linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a certain virus.
Other researchers have been unable to replicate the findings of the study, causing the journal Science to retract it in December.