Big Trouble in Sheldon Adelson’s Little China
Sheldon Adelson has rarely been shy about sharing his opinion. Whether the topic is Israeli politics, online gambling, or the next GOP presidential nominee, the multibillionaire casino man and Republican Party mega-donor has put his mouth wherever his money is.
But after four days of at times bruising testimony in a volatile wrongful-termination lawsuit that threatens his gambling empire and reputation, the 81-year-old Adelson has talked his way into trouble.
At a time he might have preferred to be jetting off to monitor his Macau casino interests or relaxing at his Las Vegas home with a lapful of panting GOP presidential hopefuls, Adelson found himself giving sworn testimony in a district court hearing designed to establish jurisdiction in the wrongful-termination suit brought against him by former Sands China Ltd. CEO Steve Jacobs. And on Friday, the court ruled that the suit would be heard in the U.S., not Macau, where Adelson wanted the trial to take place.
Adelson is the chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, which owns 70 percent of Sands China Ltd. He is the chairman of the board of Sands China, a company registered in the Cayman Islands and traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Sands China operates the Macau casinos that have helped make Las Vegas resident Adelson one of the world’s richest men.
Among other things, Jacobs accuses Adelson and the company of unethical business practices, bribing public officials, maintaining a relationship with a company tied to a Chinese triad crime boss, and facilitating prostitution. Jacobs says Adelson was involved in all these shady dealings, and that he was fired in part for blowing the whistle on Adelson.
For his part, Adelson calls Jacobs’s accusations the “delusional” fantasies of an incompetent employee bent on revenge and a big payday he didn’t earn. He also accused Jacobs of “squealing like a pig to the government” after his former executive expressed his concerns about the company to the Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission.
Any decent litigator will tell his client that on the witness stand brief answers are best. Before Friday’s ruling, it became obvious that Adelson didn’t get that memo. On several occasions last week, Adelson attorney Randall Jones appeared to try to cut his client short, and a few times reminded the loquacious Adelson that no question was pending. But the casino boss insisted on elaborating at most every turn.
In the process, Adelson contradicted the recollections of current and former company executives on pertinent issues, including whether damaging news accounts led to a decision to stop doing business with a casino junket company influenced by triad boss Cheung Chi Tai.
District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez moved the hearing along almost without incident—save for one brief exchange with the defendant to remind him that he was the witness and not the judge.
In a previous deposition, Adelson made it fairly clear that not much of consequence happens in his kingdom without his input. Jacobs’s attorney, James Pisanelli, drew from a September 6, 2012, deposition to remind him of that fact.
“‘Did you perform any duties that would be more typical of a CEO on behalf of SCL?’” Pisanelli asked. In 2012, Adelson had answered, “Look, the responsibilities of different positions, different titles, sometimes get mixed up. It could very well be that I have made recommendations or I’ve given orders for something that—that may have belonged to another title, that for one reason or another the suggestions are not forthcoming or that I see that people make mistakes and they have to be corrected.”
And Adelson was prepared to make those corrections from his Las Vegas headquarters whether it was changing executives or moving the location of a gourmet restaurant inside one of his Macau casinos.
Jacobs says he was let go after he refused to pay a $700,000 fee submitted by well-connected Macau legislator and Sands China outside counsel Leonel Alves, which he worried might break U.S. anti-bribery laws. Adelson overruled his Macau CEO and reinstated the payment, which he said was a bargain considering the exorbitant fees other lawyers were charging to settle casino-licensing issues.
Throughout his testimony, Adelson took swipes at Jacobs, who sat silently in the courtroom, at one point observing, “He was one of the least competent and potentially destructive executives I had in over 50 companies in my 69-year business career. He only worked for the company for one year.”
In that time, however, Jacobs appears to have mightily impressed Adelson’s former No. 2 man, Michael Leven, who cheered in an email, “The Titanic hit the iceberg. [Jacobs] arrived and not only saved the passengers, he saved the ship.”
Clearly nonplussed, Adelson said Leven had been “hypnotized” by Jacobs and then promised, “Mike Leven will come in and say he made a mistake.”
But Jacobs’s attorneys, Pisanelli and Todd Bice, continued to grind away at their argument that, according to a court filing, “Jacobs was not terminated for cause. He was terminated for blowing the whistle on improprieties and placing the interests of shareholders above those of Adelson.”
Adelson, ever pugnacious, countered that he looked forward to the time the merits of the case would be filed, which is intriguing considering how hard his own attorneys have worked to drag out the jurisdiction issue.
Jacobs’s lawsuit contends, “While Sands China publicly holds itself out as being headquartered in Macau, its true headquarters are in Las Vegas, where all principle decisions are made and direction is given by executives acting for Sands China.”
Adelson downplayed that argument and even appeared to shrug off the assertion that his company had been doing business with a major Chinese organized crime figure.
“I keep reading the newspapers that say that Cheung Chi Tai was only a witness in a trial in Hong Kong concerning some wrongdoing,” Adelson said. “He was never accused of any wrongdoing. It’s not—I don’t get involved in those things…We hired the former head of the FBI regulatory division. We hired the former chief operating officer of the U.S. Secret Service. We do everything we can to stay away from the bad guys, and we’re constantly on the lookout for any direct or indirect connection. You’re asking me about documents in languages that I don’t speak or read.”
Pisanelli countered, “So you’re telling us, sir, then that as the chairman of the board you were to learn that a person with whom your company had a business association with was involved in a plot to behead some of your employees, that is not something you would have gotten involved with as the chairman?”
Adelson’s attorney Jones rushed to object.
It’s just such testimony that has helped generate damaging headlines linking Adelson’s company to Chinese organized crime, which could cause a lot of trouble for the casino king now that the case will proceed in a Las Vegas courtroom.
Then again, maybe it’s just the kind of trouble a guy worth nearly $30 billion or so can afford.
John L. Smith is a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist. His latest book is a collection of short stories, Even a Street Dog.