I-Team: Deals for Coyote Springs Raise Questions (Part 1) - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Deals for Coyote Springs Raise Questions (Part 1)

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Harvey Whittemore Harvey Whittemore

The slumping housing market isn't going to keep Nevada super-lobbyist Harvey Whittemore from his dream of building tens of thousands of homes in Coyote Springs Valley, one of the driest spots in the state.

The story of how Whittemore was able to move forward with his plan is a lesson in how things sometimes work in Nevada for those who have connections. Whittemore's plan might not be an impossible dream, but it sure looks like an improbable one.

Whittemore is widely regarded as smart, hard-working, and likeable. He can smooth talk or twist arms, whatever it takes to get things done. When it comes to his plans for Coyote Springs, also known as Harveyville, he gets by with a little help from his friends.

"I didn't create the community. I didn't sell the land to the developer. It happened. Our problem is we have to deal with it," said General Manager Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority.

When water authority boss Pat Mulroy says she had little to do with the plans for a boomtown in Coyote Springs, she's being a bit too modest. Without her help -- and that of many other public officials -- Harvey Whittemore's grandiose vision could never have moved forward.

Whittemore is widely regarded as the most effective lobbyists in Nevada history, a man who gets what he wants. Coyote Springs could be exhibit A. In 1996, Whittemore's company bought 42,000 acres in Coyote Springs. His vision was to build up to 150,000 homes, along with 10 golf courses and a casino or two, even though the valley is 60 miles from Las Vegas and is home to endangered species and sensitive lands and has scarce water resources.

"There was a vision that a large piece of public, I mean private property, would make a phenomenal development," Mike Hillerby, Coyote Springs Development. The slip of the tongue by Coyote Springs executive Mike Hillerby is understandable since the land in question once belonged to the public.

In the 1980's, the BLM land was designated as a potential site for the MX Missile project. When that was cancelled, a rocket company named Aerojet acquired the acreage in a swap for Florida swampland. Documents show Aerojet was specifically not to use the land for development beyond what was needed to test rockets. Somehow, that stipulation vanished by the time Whittemore bought the property. But where did the idea originate?

"I can't comment on the genesis. I don't know the genesis," Hillerby said.

The idea may have come from Richard Bunker, former Clark County manager, longtime partner with Whittemore and fellow gaming lobbyist. Bunker reportedly went to Clark County as an agent for Aerojet to propose the county acquire the land. When the county said no, Whittemore entered the picture. He bought 42,000 acres for $23 million dollars but quickly sold part of his water rights to the SNWA, headed by Pat Mulroy for $25 million. When Richard Bunker was Clark County manager, Mulroy was his assistant. She regards him as her mentor. She defends the Whittemore deal as good for both parties, though it meant Whittemore essentially got the land for free, plus $2 million.

SNWA has helped in other ways too. After federal agencies said water pumping the Coyote Springs would likely dry up nearby warms springs and kill endangered fish, SNWA bought the springs for $69 million and agreed to watch over the fish. SNWA's proposed water pipeline to rural Nevada will come in handy as well since it means Whittemore can buy up remote ranches for their water, then use the public pipeline to carry the water to his development.

Nevada rancher Hand Vogler points out the coincidences.

"Do you think it's divine providence that Harvey Whittemore buys a ranch right in line where the pipeline is gonna go? Do you think it's some sort of accident when you pull into Coyote Springs from Highway 93, there are signs that say - Warning: critical desert tortoise habitat, yet there is enough equipment to make Cashman cats look like a parking lot?

The Clark County Commission, Lincoln County Commission, state legislature, and Nevada congressional delegation have all pitched in with favors for the project. Nevada Senator Harry Reid has helped lead the way and all of those public entities have praised the project over and over.

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