WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) probably never thought driving a pal's race car in 2004 could prove a campaign liability. But the joyride seems to have sparked the latest attack in Nevada's Senate race, in the form of a TV ad from his Democratic opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley.

The spot, released late last week and roundly condemned by the Heller campaign, features Heller -- who was Nevada's secretary of state before moving to Congress in 2007 -- boasting of the job he did cracking down on fraud. It then notes that a diamond mine company allegedly carried out a $64 million fraud scheme under Heller's watch, and that Heller got a campaign donation from one of the players.

The company was called CMKM Diamonds Inc., and was found liable for selling some 800 billion shares of stock for fractions of a penny each -- nearly all of them unregistered and ultimately worthless. The firm's founder, Urban Casavant, and nine others ended up getting indicted in 2009 and 2010 by a federal grand jury in Nevada. Casavant, from Canada, is now a fugitive, the FBI said. Others also are fugitives; at least one was overseas, fighting extradition. The trial is set for January.

CMKM Diamonds, which had claimed to be digging for gems in Canada's Saskatchewan province, was also known as CMKX, the sponsor of the CMKXtreme racing series.

That's where Heller's race car ride comes in. On Oct. 30, 2004, as Heller's campaign explained it, Heller took the opportunity offered by an acquaintance, Matt Daly, to drive in the ASA Speed Truck Challenge at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway's “Bullring.” Heller, an experienced racer, knew Daly from the circuit in Northern Nevada.

The event was sponsored by CMKX, which also had its logo on Daly's cars and reportedly invested heavily in Daly's "Go Fast" racing and sports drink companies. CMKM used its race sponsorships to build credibility and left thousands of NASCAR fans with worthless investments, according to federal documents. Heller knew nothing of CMKM, his campaign said, and was simply at the race to "have fun" driving his friend's car, according to an interview he gave at the time.

But by the time Heller drove in CMKM's race, the firm, which registered in Nevada in 2002, was attracting the attention of authorities and was the subject of intense debate in online investor forums. One stock analysis site, the StockPatrol.com, was raising questions, some of them directed at Heller's office. Such questions are apparently routinely handled by staffers, although Stock Patrol reported the office was swamped with requests about the company.

Just four days before Heller had his Vegas racing debut, Canadian officials suspended trading of CMKM.

There is no indication that Heller was aware of the furor around the company. Though Heller had long sought to beef up his office's role in policing securities, such investigations are generally handled by the state attorney general. Corporate registrations in Nevada also number in the tens of thousands every year, and are handled almost automatically.

Still, the company was trading billions of shares a day, and blasted out press releases touting Heller's participation in the race. Some saw that as proof that the company was legit. Others, including Heller opponents, eventually saw it as possible evidence that Heller wasn't doing his job. Heller, according to his campaign, knew nothing about CMKM and never heard that his name was being used to promote the company.

"Dean Heller had absolutely no idea about these materials until this nonsense was being shopped around to reporters by Democratic operatives," the campaign said in a statement. "If he had, as soon as he had found out, he would have immediately asked for a cease and desist."

That wasn't the only brush Heller had with CMKM. After the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission began investigating the firm -- suspending its trading in March 2005 -- Heller scheduled a meeting in April with Urban Casavant at a Vegas hotel, listing it on his calendar as a meeting with "Urban."

Heller's campaign said neither the former secretary nor four members of his staff could recall the meeting or Casavant.

However, according to court records from the SEC case against CMKM, a lawyer for the company, Don Stoecklein, does recall a sit-down Heller held with Casavant and several others, including Bob Maheu, a Nevada legend who once served as Howard Hughes' right-hand man and had recently joined the board of CMKM.

They were looking for help sorting out the complicated issue of who actually owned the company and the billions of stock shares that were sold under the Nevada registration. According Stoecklein's sworn deposition, Heller declined to offer any advice to Casavant, saying "the problem may be far greater than the state wanted to get involved in at that point."

Stoecklein also said Heller did not know Casavant.

It is unclear whether the hotel meeting and the meeting with Maheu, Casavant, Stoecklein and at least one other person are the same, or two separate encounters.

"While Dean Heller does not remember this meeting, court transcripts show that Dean Heller did not have a relationship with the individual in question," Heller's campaign said. "Senator Heller was never contacted or questioned during the SEC investigation because he had no involvement or relationship with the company."

The Berkley campaign's ad points out one more connection -- $4,200 in contributions given to Heller in June 2005 by a man named Rendal Williams, who ran a company called U.S. Canadian Minerals Inc. Berkley's ad calls him a co-conspirator, although Williams was not indicted. His firm was mentioned in great detail in the indictment, however, which alleged it was a "shell" for CMKM that before January 2004 had been known as E-Bait Inc.

The indictment was not filed, however, until nearly four years after the contributions, and Heller's camp was especially angered by the co-conspirator line.

"Obviously, Shelley Berkley’s lies about Medicare are not working, so now she is inventing new ones," said Heller spokeswoman Chandler Smith in a statement. "Congresswoman Berkley is a desperate politician whose ambitions are being destroyed by her own ethics problems. This is a story that Shelley Berkley has been trying to sell to reporters for months, but no one would buy it because there were no facts to support her allegations. So now she has resorted to running a blatantly false negative attack in a desperate attempt to create more fiction."

Berkley herself is embroiled in an ethics probe, and some observers beyond the Heller campaign see her ad as attempt to tar Heller, a Mormon who teaches Sunday school, with ethics issues.

Noted Nevada political scribe Jon Ralston saw the issue in a similar light, hammering a fellow columnist at his paper for taking the charges seriously, saying in his morning political email that it was "drawing a still-tenuous connection between Sen. Dean Heller and a fraudster. Really? Because a bad guy invested in a company owned by a guy who Heller raced for, this is a scandal?" He added that the link was "ridiculous."

Though the CMKM probe was big enough that Heller might have known about it, no one pointed to evidence that he actually did. The only person who said he thought Heller should have known is Mark Faulk, a reporter who literally wrote the book on CMKM, and as a result served for a year as the company's CEO during the attempts to clean up the mess in the aftermath of the SEC charges.

"I would agree that it's probably overreaching to say there's evidence that Heller knew about the fraud at CMKM Diamonds. It's not overreaching to say he should have known," Faulk said.

Heller's campaign vehemently disagreed. Regardless, Heller probably wishes he was never photographed racing a souped-up truck with the CMKM logo on it and touted in a press release that could later be used against him.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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  • Sen. Maria Cantwell

    Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was elected to the Senate in 2001, and she serves as chair of both the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, and the Senate Subcommittee on Energy. She is also a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, the Committee on Indian Affairs and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Cantwell is a strong supporter of abortion rights, having voted against the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2004. She is also an advocate for environmental protection and has voted <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/16/AR2006041600824.html" target="_hplink">against oil drilling</a> in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge several times. Cantwell is a <a href="http://cantwell.senate.gov/issues/civil_liberties.cfm" target="_hplink">strong advocate for civil liberties</a>, and she was <a href="http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/2011_cr/s052411.html" target="_hplink">one of just 13 Democrats</a> to vote against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Following her defeat by Republican Rick White in the 1994 House of Representatives election, Cantwell joined the private sector, becoming the senior vice president of RealNetworks. In 2000, Cantwell was elected to the Senate and became one of the first two women to defeat incumbent senators, alongside Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was elected to the Senate in 1992. Before that, she served as the 38th mayor of San Francisco from 1978 to 1988 and was elected the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Feinstein chairs both the Senate Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water. She is also a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Rules and Administration. She was the first woman to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Feinstein was the original Democratic <a href="http://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=792a048f-7e9c-9af9-7232-1ddd4a97cb2e" target="_hplink">co-sponsor</a> of the bill that extended the Patriot Act, saying in 2005, "I believe the Patriot Act is <a href="http://blog.thedemocraticdaily.com/?p=1458" target="_hplink">vital to the protection of the American people</a> and I question why the President is opposing a three-month extension while efforts are underway to reach a consensus on two problematic provisions." Feinstein is currently the lead sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. "My own belief is that when two people love each other and enter the contract of marriage, the federal government should honor that," she said in a statement. "I <a href="http://blog.sfgate.com/nov05election/2011/02/24/dianne-feinstein-will-try-to-repeal-doma/" target="_hplink">opposed the Defense of Marriage Act</a> in 1996. It was the wrong law then; it is the wrong law now; and it should be repealed."

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

    Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) assumed office in 2009, appointed by then-Gov. David Paterson (D) to <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/24/nyregion/24choice.html" target="_hplink">replace Hillary Clinton</a>, who joined the Obama administration as Secretary of State. Before that, Gillibrand was twice elected to the House in a district in upstate New York. She has since served on the Senate Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Armed Services; Environment and Public Works and Foreign Relations. The pro-choice senator is a strong advocate for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-kirsten-gillibrand/making-congress-more-tran_b_703899.html" target="_hplink">government transparency</a> and well-known for championing the repeal of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-kirsten-gillibrand/the-right-time-to-repeal_b_310352.html" target="_hplink">Don't Ask, Don't Tell</a>. In late October, she announced that she would be introducing the <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics/2011/10/gillibrand-open-adoption-to-gays-lesbians" target="_hplink">Every Child Deserves a Family Act in the Senate</a>, a measure that would allow same-sex couples to become foster or adoptive parents. As part of her reelection campaign, Gilliband has launched <a href="http://www.offthesidelines.org/" target="_hplink">Off the Sidelines</a>, a project aimed at getting women more involved in their communities. "When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better," Gillibrand told The Huffington Post.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar

    Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) became the first woman elected to the Senate from Minnesota when she won her campaign in 2006. She serves as chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion and is a member of the Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Commerce, Science and Transportation, as well as the Judiciary Committee. Prior to being elected to the Senate, Klobuchar was a partner at two law firms until 1998, when she was elected as the chief prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota's largest. She served in that role from 1999-2007, during which she was named Attorney of the Year by the <em>Minnesota Lawyer</em>. In the Senate, Klobuchar is a strong supporter of <a href="http://www.plannedparenthoodadvocate.org/klobuchar/" target="_hplink">Planned Parenthood</a> and has opposed measures that would cut federal funding for the family planning organization. In 2007, <em>The Washington Post</em> called her "<a href="http://voices.washingtonpost.com/sleuth/2007/06/post_1.html" target="_hplink">a leading proponent</a> of efforts to combat climate change."

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill

    Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri in 2006. From 1983-1988, she was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives. She is the chair of the Senate Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight as well as a member of the Senate Committees on Armed Services; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Special Committee on Aging. McCaskill is an avid user of social media and is currently the second-most <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/19/sen-claire-mccaskill-twitter_n_1020783.html" target="_hplink">followed member</a> of Congress on Twitter. McCaskill has been one of Congress' top watchdogs on wartime contracts, calling for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/10/afghanistan-special-inspector-general-resigns-oversight_n_805761.html" target="_hplink">greater administration scrutiny</a> of taxpayer dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently <a href="http://thehill.com/news-by-subject/defense-homeland-security/188615-sen-mccaskill-crafting-legislation-to-crack-down-on-waste-in-wartime" target="_hplink">crafting legislation</a> that would reform wartime contracting, after a report came out showing that $60 billion in taxpayer dollars had been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan on private contractors. The senator is a strong supporter of women's rights to abortion access, and she criticized the GOP's attempts to defund Planned Parenthood in an interview with The Huffington Post. "One of the reasons I was proud to lock arms with the other women Democratic senators to stop what they were trying to do to Planned Parenthood is that it doesn't even make sense in terms of their agenda," she said. "If you want to prevent abortions, why in the world would you cut off giving birth control to young women? It's just nonsensical to think we're going to reduce abortions by making it so that young college women can't access Planned Parenthood services for gynecological exams and birth control services."

  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow

    Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) was elected to Senate in 2000. Previously, she represented Michigan as a member of the House of Representatives from 1997-2001. She was also the first woman to preside over the Michigan state House. She is now one of two women in the Senate Democratic leadership, serving as the vice chair of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center. In 2000, she and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) were the first women in history to defeat sitting Senate incumbents. She chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. She is also a member of the Senate Committees on Budget; Energy and National Resources; and Finance. Stabenow was a strong supporter of health care reform. During the debate in 2009, she had a brief -- but memorable -- exchange with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) about the need for maternity care coverage in health insurance plans. "I don't need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive," argued Kyl during a Senate Finance Committee in September 2009. "<a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/09/25/61634/stabenow-kyl-maternity/" target="_hplink">I think your mom probably did</a>," shot back Stabenow. "This was just a snapshot of the differences in perspectives and the importance of having women at the table," Stabenow told The Huffington Post.

  • Rep. Tammy Baldwin

    Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was elected to Congress in 1998, making her the first woman in the Wisconsin delegation. If elected to the Senate in the open seat being vacated by Sen. Herb Kohl (D), she would be the first woman in the state to serve in the upper chamber. Baldwin is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a strong supporter of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-bork/domestic-violence_b_1024496.html" target="_hplink">Violence Against Women Act</a>. In a 2011 <em>National Journal</em> <a href="http://www.nationaljournal.com/congress/most-liberal-members-of-congress-20110226" target="_hplink">survey</a>, she tied for first place in a ranking of most liberal members of the House. In her Senate campaign announcement, she promised to focus on the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/06/tammy-baldwin-senate-wisconsin_n_950163.html" target="_hplink">fight to grow our economy</a>, protect seniors, force Wall Street to clean up its act, and bring our troops home from Afghanistan." She told The Huffington Post that the 2012 elections will be a "women's battle." "Women in families oftentimes are making the family budgetary decisions, health care decisions. Women are at the forefront, and certainly, in this election, during this economic downturn, women are disproportionately impacted," she said. Baldwin is also the only openly gay woman in Congress and if elected, she would be the first openly gay woman in the Senate. The Human Rights Campaign has called her candidacy "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/06/tammy-baldwin-senate-wisconsin_n_950163.html" target="_hplink">monumental</a> for both the state of Wisconsin and the country's LGBT community."

  • Rep. Shelley Berkley

    Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), currently in her seventh term in Congress, could be the first female U.S. senator from Nevada. In the first six months of 2011, she <a href="http://lasvegas.cbslocal.com/2011/07/12/shelley-berkley-raises-1-2m-in-senate-race/" target="_hplink">raised more money</a> for her campaign than her opponent, incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). <a href="http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2011/PPP_Release_NV_10261118.pdf" target="_hplink">An October 2011 poll</a> showed the two dead even in the general election, both receiving 45 percent of support. She serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means and has been a strong supporter of women's access to abortion. She has <a href="http://emilyslist.org/blog/shelley_berkley_could_save_this_country/" target="_hplink">earned a perfect rating</a> with pro-choice groups for her entire congressional tenure. She has also cosponsored legislation promoting equal pay and a higher minimum wage. Berkley is a <a href="http://www.yuccamountain.org/leg/berkely042502.html" target="_hplink">strong opponent</a> of the construction of a nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

  • Rep. Mazie Hirono

    Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) could be both the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate and the first female Hawaiian senator. She serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the Committee on Ethics, and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Raised in Japan until age eight, Hirono would also be the first immigrant elected to the Senate. In an interview with The Huffington Post, she described her upbringing: "My mother brought me to this country, literally to create a better life for us. She had three children that she brought to this country, raised us all by herself, leaving an abusive marriage in Japan. So I've watched my mother work very hard with no health insurance, no job security. I know what it's like for a woman head-of-household. The economic issues that face women and our families are extremely important, and I intend to continue to raise my voice in support of families, many of whom are led by women these days." Hirono is expected to face former Republican governor Linda Lingle in the Senate race.

  • Former Gov. Linda Lingle

    Former Republican Hawaii governor Linda Lingle was the first woman and the first Jewish governor of Hawaii, serving from 2002-2010. From 1999-2002, she served as the elected chair of the Hawaii Republican Party. In October 2011, she announced she would be running to succeed retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), competing against Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). At the 2008 Republican National Convention, Lingle gained national prominence when she gave a <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5LzIdYv1zY&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL6C177EE90BA2F46B" target="_hplink">strong endorsement</a> of fellow female governor Sarah Palin, as Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) running mate in the presidential election. Lingle has taken more moderate positions than many members of her party on certain issues. "Although favoring parental consent for abortions, she did not oppose all abortion rights. She also allowed <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/senate-races/189537-former-hawaii-gov-lingle-not-running-from-rino-label?tmpl=component&print=1&page=" target="_hplink">tax increases for mass transit projects</a> and cigarettes, and spoke out for expanding renewable energy," wrote <em>The Hill</em> in October. In 2006, she signed a pro-choice bill removing a "<a href="http://archives.starbulletin.com/2006/04/27/news/story10.html" target="_hplink">90-day residential requirement</a> for women seeking an abortion in Hawaii and a requirement that all abortions be performed only in a hospital."

  • Elizabeth Warren

    Longtime consumer advocate and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren would become the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts if she defeats Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown in the 2012 Senate election. Warren, who has been called "<a href="http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/09/wall-streets-worst-nightmare-elizabeth-warren-announce-senate-candidacy" target="_hplink">Wall Street's Worst Nightmare</a>," conceived of and built the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). President Obama appointed her as its acting head, but Republicans <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/18/republican-opposition-to-elizabeth-warren_n_902165.html" target="_hplink">aggressively opposed</a> the idea of her getting the permanent position and threatened to wage a drawn-out confirmation battle. Progressives urged Obama to give her a recess appointment, but Warren announced her resignation from the CFPB in July. "The pressures on middle class families are worse than ever, but it is the big corporations that get their way in Washington," said Warren in a statement announcing her candidacy for the Senate. "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/elizabeth-warren-senate-massachusetts_n_960510.html" target="_hplink">I want to change that</a>. I will work my heart out to earn the trust of the people of Massachusetts." A <a href="http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2011/09/elizabeth-warren-leads-scott-brown-by-two-points.html" target="_hplink">September 2011 poll</a> showed Warren as the only candidate with a lead against incumbent Brown. She has essentially cleared the field of major primary contenders and is the presumptive nominee.

  • Heidi Heitkamp

    Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general and gubernatorial candidate, now running to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. She's seeking to replace fellow Democrat Kent Conrad, who announced last year that he wouldn't run for reelection. She'll face Republican Rick Berg, a freshman congressman. At her first town hall in April, she <a href="http://www.kxnet.com/story/17401888/heidi-heitkamp-holds-first-town-hall-meeting" target="_hplink">outlined a few of her positions</a>: <blockquote>In her first leap into the public eye this campaign season, she is targeting the Ryan Budget. A plan that Representative Berg supported. Heitkamp is critical of the cuts to farm programs, student aid and medicare. Meanwhile, since Heitkamp entered the race -- Republicans have attacked her for backing President Obama's Healthcare plan. "My challenge is lets have a discussion what works to solve the problem with healthcare delivery in our state. I don't think repealing a bill that prohibits the use of preexisting conditions to deny people insurance or kick people off insurance is the right public policy," says Heitkamp.</blockquote>

  • Linda McMahon

    Former World Wresting Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon is making her second go around as a Republican candidate for Connecticut Senate in 2012. She's in the midst of a bruising GOP primary against former Congressman Christopher Shays. The winner will face one of four Democratic candidates. In the 2010 Senate race, McMahon suffered a handy defeat to Democrat Richard Blumenthal after spending more than $50 million of her own money.