Sen. Harry M. Reid building war chest by tapping donors beyond Nevada

By Carol D. Leonnig and T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 26, 2010; A01

Harry M. Reid needed money, and lots of it. Last spring, the Senate majority leader was looking ahead to a tough reelection fight. Polls showed that the voters back home in Nevada who sent him to Washington four times had tired of him. Republican Party fundraisers had all but declared him their No. 1 target for defeat. Taking them on would be expensive, and he wasn't drawing nearly enough cash from contributors inside Nevada. So Reid did what politicians in his position do: He picked up the phone.

The senator began dialing old and new friends across the country, asking for their help. Many had one thing in common: They had a financial stake in legislation that Reid, as the most powerful member of the Senate, helps control.

One of the calls Reid placed seeking cash was to trial lawyer John Morgan. At a party held at his home near Orlando in March, Morgan raised about $96,000 for Reid's reelection battle.

Trial lawyers have long given generously to Democrats, and to Reid. Morgan, whose firm Morgan and Morgan is preparing legal claims against BP on behalf of the gulf region's tourism industry and commercial fishermen, said he's helping Reid because the pro-consumer senator is under attack by "tea party" Republican Sharron Angle, and Morgan would "rather have one trial lawyer in Congress than 500 bureaucrats."

"Prospectively, of course, I'm looking for laws that I think are pro-consumer. Consumer rights is my issue -- that is my livelihood," he said.

Reid has raised $16.9 million for his 2010 campaign, $10 million of it in itemized contributions since 2009. Eighty percent of that $10 million came from out of state. (Angle has raised $1.3 million, with 70 percent of itemized contributions coming from out of state, records show.) Individual Nevadans have written $1.96 million in checks to Reid since 2009, compared with $221,000 to Angle.

Reid's position as majority leader may have helped. In 1998, before he had risen to the Senate leadership, 51 percent of Reid's contributions came from outside Nevada.

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Reid raises more money from outside his state than any other senator. Vermont's Patrick J. Leahy (D) edges out Reid in the percentage he raises from out of state with 86 percent, but Leahy's total contributions of $1.6 million are dwarfed by Reid's.

While congressional leaders often draw support beyond their home states, Reid's fundraising success underscores the power he has over which bills move through the Senate and the shape they take. Reid's leading donors include executives and partners of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison (a top New York law firm representing most of the major Wall Street investment houses now facing the landmark financial regulatory overhaul); a physician practice group based in California and Nevada whose use of foreign doctors Reid proposed investigating in 2007; and a Utah nuclear energy firm trying to block legislation that would curtail its efforts to import nuclear waste from other countries.

Reid's attractiveness to out-of-state donors could make him vulnerable to criticism that his years as a Washington powerbroker have left him out of touch with Nevadans, which is one of Angle's lines of attack. Last week, a political survey showed that 52 percent of Nevadans said they viewed Reid unfavorably and 45 percent viewed him "very unfavorably."

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaigns, said trial lawyers and other Democratic-leaning donors probably want to help Reid stay in power -- but other new outside interests may want something else from him.

"When so much money is coming from out of state, voters should know where the money is coming from," she said. "Given that Reid is Senate majority leader, it's not surprising, but voters need to be concerned because there might be tucked in there some donors whose interests run counter to their own and counter to the state."

Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman, said campaign donations have not deterred Reid from taking on big insurance companies, Wall Street firms and banks in this legislative session. And he said Reid's first priority is always the interests of Nevada.

"Senator Reid is working every day to create jobs, keep people in their homes and get Nevada's economy back on track," Manley said. "He has a solid record of delivering results on the issues that matter most to Nevada."

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The Washington Post analyzed Reid's donations based on home addresses of supporters. Of the top 25 corporate interests helping fund Reid's 2010 reelection campaign, five are first-time power players in his camp, and their company executives and officers have generated at least $300,400 for him this season.

Lawyers from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind pulled together $54,700 for Reid at a fundraiser just before New Year's Eve. The firm, whose lawyers had not given significantly to Reid in the past, is a central Wall Street player and represents some of the biggest houses, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Apollo Management. These firms also gave heavily to Reid this season. The firm's managing partner, Brad Karp, did not return calls.

Another new financial power for Reid is a West Coast law firm ranked first in the nation for securities class-action lawsuits. Its lawyers raised at least $31,500 for Reid at a June 2009 fundraiser. Coughlin Stoia, recently renamed Robbins Geller, won $1.5 billion for investors and shareholders in settlements in 2009, according to an investors ranking system. Partners at the firm did not return calls.

One lesser-known new friend of Reid's is HealthCare Partners, a group of physician practices in California, Nevada and Florida. In 2007, Reid recommended that the group and others be investigated after a newspaper reported that they were abusing a foreign doctor visa program.

Reid's office confirmed that he asked for the investigation and for the Department of Homeland Security to report on ways Congress could improve the program. Reid said he has no control over the law enforcement probe or information about it.

Sherif Abdou, HealthCare Partners of Nevada president, said neither he nor his employees have been contacted by investigators. He said he has never talked to Reid or his staff about any such probe.

In July 2009, at Reid's request, Abdou held a fundraiser at his Las Vegas home. Fellow executives and physicians chipped in $40,700. Abdou said he and his partners wanted to be part of the political process while the health-care overhaul was on the table. He said that the final bill didn't help his group but that as more health-care legislation comes along, "we don't want to be on the sidelines."

In August last year, Reid went to Utah for a fundraiser at the home of Steve Creamer, then chief executive of the nuclear waste company EnergySolutions. The event brought in an estimated $76,500, including $43,650 from EnergySolutions employees and their families.

EnergySolutions is now opposing a bill that passed the House in December that would prohibit importing foreign nuclear waste. The legislation would scuttle a deal that the company negotiated to take 20,000 tons of low-level waste from Italy.

Mark Walker, EnergySolutions spokesman, said Creamer and Reid have been friends for 20 years. Creamer had no goal of shaping legislation, he said, but was happy to help raise money when Reid asked.

"I think he was reaching out to as many friends that he knows, given this upcoming election," Walker said.

The legislation has not yet come up in the Senate, and Reid's office said the senator is unfamiliar with the House bill.

Reid is heavily involved in nuclear issues with his effort to kill a Yucca Mountain waste storage facility. That project focuses on high-level waste, not the low-level type handled by EnergySolutions.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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