Sheldon Adelson, the Billionaire Who Bankrupted Me

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is on the rampage again, suing a Wall Street Journal reporter for libel. John L. Smith has been there, and it nearly cost him everything.

Kin Cheung/AP

The bullyboy of Las Vegas Boulevard is at it again.

Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson this week filed another defamation suit against a journalist. This time, The Wall Street Journal’s Hong Kong-based reporter Kate O’Keeffe is the object of his ire. She has been busy probing the depths of Adelson’s Macau casino gambit. She also co-bylined a story profiling his litigation battle against the former president of his Macau casino operations, Steven Jacobs.

Forget for a moment that the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission are conducting criminal and civil investigations into Las Vegas Sands’ activities in Macau, historically a smuggler’s paradise riddled with Triad organized crime influence. Federal investigators are said to be searching for possible violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by the casino company Adelson controls, and the Jacobs lawsuit is a component of that complex story. (Las Vegas Sands has called the lawsuit’s allegations false and misleading. Regarding the federal investigations, the company has said it’s cooperating.)

O’Keeffe is a Journal veteran, but she finds herself sued individually in a Hong Kong court following the publication of a story that described Jacobs as “a 6-foot-5-inch-tall Ivy League graduate who colleagues say rarely curses,” and Adelson as—this part might not be appropriate for sensitive readers—“a scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester, Mass.”

Say it ain’t so. Not a potty-mouthed casino owner—and a scrappy one at that. What next, a lawsuit from the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce crying foul for being called working class?

The Adelson suit contains the telltale signs of litigation intended more to harass than prevail. Filed Feb. 22 in Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance, the suit doesn’t name the article’s co-author, Alexandra Berzon, who is based in the United States. Nor does it include the newspaper or its publisher, News Corp. But that doesn’t mean it won’t take a vigorous defense to defeat.

What might sound like grist for late-night comics is, in fact, a serious matter for a reporter. Even shallow and mean-spirited libel litigation can be costly and time-consuming. And even a journalist supported by a press institution of the WSJ’s stature is bound to feel some of the emotional distress such lawsuits can generate.

I know of what I speak. Adelson sued me into bankruptcy over a brief passage in my 2005 book, Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas. It was an enormously stressful experience that came at the most difficult time in my life.

Although I wouldn’t claim to have gained much insight into Adelson’s character during the fight, I immediately learned he wasn’t shy about hitting you when you’re down. On the contrary.

He sued me (and my publisher) while my then-8-year-old daughter Amelia was suffering from brain cancer, which had metastasized to her spine. She was literally fighting for her life. I learned of the impending litigation while at her bedside at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

With the book’s diminutive publisher Barricade Books immediately trying to settle in an unsuccessful effort to avoid its own bankruptcy reorganization, it was defense through appeasement—the worst possible strategy when dealing with a billionaire bully. Barricade offered to print a correction or a retraction, but every offer was rebuffed.

Sensing weakness, Adelson’s attorney pushed on with the lawsuit. By 2007, we were exhausted. Adelson offered to place $200,000 in a medical and education account for my daughter’s benefit, in exchange for me signing an onerous and untrue letter of apology. I also couldn’t disclose the account’s existence to my bosses at the Las Vegas Review-Journal where I was, and still am, a columnist. Needless to say, I rejected the offer.

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In the end, Adelson pushed me too far. A former federal prosecutor, Donald Campbell, agreed to represent me pro bono as the billionaire’s lawsuit threatened to shove me into bankruptcy. Campbell has successfully represented other clients in litigations against Adelson. With bankruptcy lawyer Richard McKnight navigating the Chapter 7 liquidation process in the debtor’s court, Campbell went on the offensive.

At its dark heart, he surmised, the case wasn’t about defamation, but about making me an object lesson for my newspaper and other journalists who dared to criticize the billionaire. And if I should be crushed in the process, hey, so much the better.

Campbell didn’t let that happen. Within weeks he turned the case around during the discovery process, which included an eight-hour deposition of Adelson and the nearly unprecedented act of gaining access to his Gaming Control Board licensing file.

Shortly thereafter, Adelson agreed to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Bruce Markell appeared irritated at the whole process, and awarded Campbell his court costs. Barricade, meanwhile, included a corrected version in subsequent printings of the book, and accepted an uncollected judgment against it.

Adelson moved on.

He twice sued the Las Vegas Sun’s Jeff Simpson over comments the veteran gaming reporter made in columns. Although the lawsuits were eventually dismissed, Simpson told me he felt the overwhelming stress of the litigation.

Adelson also sued the Daily Mail of London for defamation. The newspaper published an apology in 2008 and settled the case.

In 2013, Adelson’s remarkable business success is written in large type. His embrace of Israel is unwavering and high profile, and his attempt to influence the Republican Party is well known and not without controversy. But for all his business success, political activity, and philanthropy, his prickliness with the press is becoming part of his legacy.

You’d think a guy who wasted $25 million on Newt Gingrich’s presidential candidacy would have developed a sense of humor by now, but apparently not.

We’ve managed to keep our sense of humor in the Smith house despite all the expense and distress. My amazing daughter turns 17 in March. Despite all the pain she’s endured, Amelia works hard in physical therapy and high school and dreams of becoming a special needs teacher, and perhaps one day walking again.

While I still can’t say I know what makes Adelson tick, I’ll never forget how hurt he sounded during a deposition when he reminisced about childhood battles with some mean-spirited Irish kids in his Dorchester neighborhood. How strange and sad, I thought. After all these decades, those childhood slights still weigh on his mind.

That was a million miles and many billions of dollars from Las Vegas and Macau, back when Sheldon Adelson was a nickel-a-paper street newsy fighting to hold his corner.

All these years later he’s emerged as the bully of Las Vegas Boulevard, and he’s still doing his damnedest to give those newsies the shove.