There was once a time, not so long ago, when Sheldon Adelson — the 79 year-old gambling mogul who recently vowed to spend $100 million to elect Mitt Romney — would have considered such profligate political largesse beyond his means.
Often when his name is mentioned in coverage of the 2012 campaign — as when he spent millions on Newt Gingrich’s ill-fated primary bid — the Jewish Adelson is said to be motivated politically by his ultra-hawkish Zionism. But the inner history of his gambling empire, currently under scrutiny by law enforcement officials, suggests he may have at least one other reason for his determination to oust the Obama administration.
Not much more than a decade ago, his Sands Hotel and Casino ranked fifth in revenues on the Las Vegas Strip. With a mere billion in the bank, he ranked 274 on Forbes’ list of Richest Men in America. Now with a net worth of $25 billion, he is ranked the eighth richest American, just behind the notorious Koch brothers.
Adelson owes his improved fortures to Macau, the island province recoverd by China in 1999 after more than 400 years of colonial rule by Portugal. What was once a government monopoly on gambling was opened up by Beijing authorities to private operators, with 21 bidders for three licenses. Despite its financial weakness compared with its Vegas competitors, Adelson’s company came out on top.
The questions that continue to haunt Adelson are why officials in Macau and Beijing decided to award a gaming license to him – and how he conducted business there in the years since. Indeed, those questions are the subject of ongoing litigation between Adelson and two executives who formerly worked for him: Richard Suen, who claims to have successfully escorted the Vegas billionaire through the complex, mystifying political systems of China and Macau; and Steven C. Jacobs, who ran the Sands China casino in Macau until Adelson abruptly fired him.
Although Adelson promised Suen a payment of $5 million plus two percent of LVSI’s net profits in Macau as a “success fee,” he was never paid. In 2008 a Las Vegas jury awarded Suen $43.8 million for his role in Adelson’s campaign for a Macau license. But the court’s decision was overturned on appeal and the case will be retried in 2013.
Their business relationship began in November 2000, when Adelson hired Suen as a consultant to advise how he might gain influence with the Communist leadership in Beijing and thus win a gaming license in Macau. Suen testified that he believed Adelson’s “strong affiliations with the Republican Party” would win him the attention of top government officials, including then-Vice Premier Qian Qichen, who oversaw Macau.
It was Adelson’s political connections, according to his own testimony, that got him the highly unusual meeting with Qian. His opportunity arose when members of Congress filed legislation designed to prevent China from hosting the 2008 Olympics due to human rights violations. Adelson simply used his clout as a major Congressional donor to kill the bill, calling “four or five” Representatives. At a Fourth of July picnic, he spoke with then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) about the bill.