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.
Bejing soon won the Olympic bid, and Adelson subsequently met with Vice Premier Qian in 2001 at the Purple Light Pavilion — the illustrious Beijing venue where Qing Emperors once received imperial emissaries and foreign generals. In February 2002, China’s rulers awarded Adelson a gaming license for Macau.
Not long after the Sands Macau opened in 2004, Adelson’s corporate profits began an astronomical rise. Since then, Adelson and his company have built two more casinos on the Chinese island. In 2012, first quarter revenue nearly doubled from 2011 for the Las Vegas Sands Corp, with one casino alone averaging nearly $4.5 million in revenue per day.
Yet despite his stratospheric wealth Adelson is, much like his Vegas casino in 1999, “currently vulnerable.” Probes by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission could threaten his empire.
If those probes find wrongdoing, the chief witness may be Jacobs, former CEO of Sands China, the Macau casino, is also suing the mogul and his company for wrongful termination. Among other claims, Jacobs has alleged in court papers that Adelson demanded secret investigations of high-ranking Macau government figures in order to thwart regulation of his businesses. The plaintiff is Jacobs, who received a $2.5 million bonus two months prior to his dismissal, claims Adelson wanted him to use improper “leverage” against senior government officials — and to refrain from disclosing information concerning the company’s alleged involvement with the island’s “Triad” criminal gangs, among other issues, to the LVSI board of directors.
According to Jacobs, Adelson was determined to “aggressively grow” the junket business, which brings high-rolling gambling patrons to special “VIP rooms” at Macau casinos – despite credible allegations that the junkets are controlled by Triad racketeers. In 2010, Reuters reported that a top Triad gangster and junket owner had shared in profits from a Sanda VIP room.
Attorneys for Jacobs have filed court documents stating that he is a cooperating witness in probes under way by the Justice Department and the SEC into whether Adelson’s firms have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by maintaining a top Macau official on the Sands China payroll.
As a casino operator in Las Vegas, Adelson is subject to Nevada laws regulating gaming. Should federal authorites uncover any overseas malfeasance, the gambling baron could lose his license — and taint all of the money donated to his political favorites. No wonder he wants more and better friends in Washington.
Part One: To be continued