Mickey Mouse .vs Sheldon Adelson

February 6, 2014 11:19 am

Here is a heavyweight fight worth watching.

In the effort to legalize casinos in Florida, Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other casino operators have hired more than 100 lobbyists to influence lawmakers in Tallahassee. On the other side of the fight is the Walt Disney Co., which opposes casinos in the Sunshine State.

The Boston Globe reports the army of lobbyists and campaign contributions are pouring into Florida. The big spending is a sign of the high stakes in Florida. It also underscores how the gambling industry drives and influences public policy when it comes to casinos. It is not as if there is a grassroots push by residents begging their elected officials for more places to gamble.

Lobbyists for casino operators say an expansion will bring jobs and tourists and boost the economy, according to The Globe. Disney believes gambling would hurt the state and undermine the family-friendly theme it has tried to build over the years.

‘‘The massive expansion of gambling that would come from legalizing mega-casinos would be a bad bet for Florida’s taxpayers, tourism brand and existing businesses,’’ Andrea Finger, a Disney spokeswoman, told The Globe.

Here is my recent op-ed in The Tampa Bay Times on the casino issue in Florida.

Adelson takes on Internet gambling

November 18, 2013 9:24 am

For once, Sheldon Adelson is right.

The billionaire casino mogul opposes legalizing online gambling because of the danger to children, the poor, elderly and others who could be exploited by easy access to betting via the Internet. (Oh, and another unmentioned reason: Adelson wants his Las Vegas Sands casinos to remain one of the main places to exploit gamblers.)

But this time at least Adelson’s self interest is in line with smart public policy. (There’s a line I never thought I would write.) The Washington Post reports that Adelson is using his deep pockets and lobbying influence to get Congress to ban Internet gambling.

Three states are gearing up to allow Internet gambling and the federal government is considering getting in on the action. As a result, online betting is shaping up to be one of the heaviest lobbying battles in 2014. Most of the major casinos support Internet gambling, provided, of course, they operate the betting sites.

But Adelson is fighting the effort. He has begun hiring lobbyists and public relations experts in Washington and in state capitals to press his case, The Post said.

Adelson has begun hiring lobbyists and public relations experts in Washington and in state capitals nationwide to press his case in what is shaping up to be one of the most heavily lobbied debates of 2014. He plans to launch a advocacy group in January called the Coalition to Stop internet Gambling. (A possible subtitle: And to keep all the gambling money in casinos).

Adelson is correct that Internet gambling could be even more destructive than casinos. Customers will be able to gamble anywhere and anytime from their home or mobile phone. It will be especially difficult to prevent children and teens from gambling. The ease of access is expected to create even more gambling addicts.

So for now at least, welcome Mr. Adelson to the efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of more legalized gambling.

New York’s real casino games begin

November 11, 2013 10:37 am

Now that Gov. Cuomo and Albany lawmakers have rammed through the constitutional amendment to legalize commercial casinos, the real games begin as operators maneuver to land a lucrative gambling license.

If history is any guide, the players with the most political clout and deepest pockets will receive a casinos license. Just look at Pennsylvania where the biggest campaign contributors and best connected friends of then-Gov. Ed Rendell and other key influential leaders in the House and Senate were awarded casino licenses – including many who had no casino experience. The winners included two convicted felons.

In New York, it is a safe bet that Cuomo & Co. have a pretty good idea who is going to get the four initial casino licenses. In fact, Albany has already earmarked the geographic areas where the casinos will go and can’t go. That decision was based more on politics than thoughtful economic analysis.

James Featherstonhaigh, a gambling industry lobbyist, part-owner of a Saratoga racino and longtime Cuomo family friend told Crain’s New York he did not know who would get a casino license.

“I don’t have any idea,” Featherstonhaugh said, apparently with a straight face.

The reality is Featherstonaugh is almost assuredly a lock to get a casino license in Saratoga. Other connected players likely to get a casino license include Jeffrey Gural, the owner of the Tioga Downs racino. Gural contributed $400,000 toward a group that purchased ads urging residents to vote to legalize casinos. He will be looking for a return on his investment.

Another likely winner will be Genting, the Malaysian-based casino giant. Genting controls Empire Resorts, which owns the Monticello racino. Genting also owns the lucrative Resorts World racino at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. Genting led the casino push shortly after Cuomo was elected and was a major donor to a nonprofit created to back Cuomo’s legislative agenda.

That leaves the rest of the less connected players to fight for the fourth casino license, including Caesars, the Las Vegas operator whose bid for a casino license in Massachusetts was rejected because of its $24 billion in debt and alleged ties to organized crime in Russia. See The New York Times report here.

Days after getting turned away in Massachusetts, Caesars pumped $100,000 into Cuomo’s efforts to pass the casino referendum. Caesars knows how the game gets played. Casino licenses usually go to the best connected and biggest donors.

Once that wheeling and dealing ends, look for Las Vegas operators like Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adeslon’s Las Vegas Sands and MGM to push for casino licenses in Manhattan.

Casinos coming to Florida?

April 29, 2013 9:15 am

Florida lawmakers are following the classic playbook to build the case for more casinos in the Sunshine State.

First use taxpayers’ money to conduct a study about gambling. Make sure study touts benefits of gambling while playing down or ignoring the social and economic costs. Use that study to support votes to allow more casinos.

Call it the Casino Confirmation Bias. The Legislature recently agreed to spend nearly $400,000 to “comprehensively examine” gambling issues. The Legislature then hired Spectrum Gaming Group to conduct the study. Spectrum specializes in promoting gambling and casinos.

As Scott Maxwell writes in the Orlando Sentinel: “Gee, I wonder what it will find.”

Maxwell says that hiring Spectrum to study gambling is like “contracting Anheuser-Busch to do a study on whether drinking beer is OK.”

Of course, the casino lobbyists are the main drivers behind more gambling in Florida. Efforts to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to Florida failed last year but they remain undeterred.

As Maxwell writes: Before he was elected, Gov. Rick Scott “promised the Baptists that he would fight gambling. Yet right after he was elected, Scott jetted off to Vegas to meet with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who wants to build casinos in Florida — and who later cut a $250,000 check to Scott’s campaign. And now, according to the Sunshine State News, Adelson’s lobbyists are telling legislators they should start giving casinos tax breaks and incentives.”

The casinos aren’t even legal and already the lobbyists are working on tax breaks. That should give some indication as to what Spectrum Gaming’s study will find.

Sands admits possible bribes

March 4, 2013 9:12 am

Sheldon Adelson tried to buy the White House. So it is no surprise the casino mogul’s company has admitted that it likely violated a federal law against paying bribes to foreign officials.

With federal prosecutors investigating, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. notified the Securities and Exchange Commission that its audit committee and independent accountants determined “there were likely violations of the books and records and internal controls provisions” of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The mea culpa comes after Adelson poured tens of millions of dollars into Mitt Romney’s failed bid to unseat President Obama. With no friends in the White House, the Sands appears ready to fess up to some misdeeds, hopefully pay a fine and move on.

Hopefully, prosecutors will press for a full accounting of what occurred. Indeed, the dubious business dealings appear to be widespread and not some one off deal by a rogue employee. In fact, the efforts appear to extend to upper levels of the company.

Steven C. Jacobs, the former president of the Sands operations in Macau, alleged in a wrongful-termination lawsuit that he had been pressured to exercise improper leverage against government officials. He also accused the company of turning a blind eye toward Chinese organized crime figures operating in its casinos.

The New York TimesWall Street Journal, Reuters, the New Yorker magazine, Frontline and others have detailed some of the Sands’ sleazy business dealings in China, including tens of millions of dollars in payments made through a Chinese intermediary, attempts to set up a trade center in Beijing and sponsor basketball team.

Adelson also reportedly intervened on behalf of the Chinese government to help stall a House resolution condemning the country’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics on the basis of its human rights record. Adelson recently sued a Journal reporter for libel in what appears to be an intimidation tactic aimed at quieting the bad press.

Of course, casinos and corruption go together like an ace of hearts and a jack of spades. As more states in the U.S. push to legalize casinos, lawmakers should keep in mind that these are the companies they are doing business with.

Chasing his losses

December 3, 2012 11:10 am

Before the election, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson said he planned to spend $100 million to help defeat President Barack Obama.

Turns out, Adelson spent even more. According to a report, Adelson gave $150 million to various Republican candidates and Super PACs. Wonder if Adelson, 79, feels like one of the many elderly slots players at his casinos who get suckered into spending a few more dollars trying to win a jackpot only to go home broke?

Of course, Adelson, who is worth about $20 billion, is hardly broke – even after blowing tens of million of dollars on Mitt Romney’s failed candidacy. Adelson is a major backer of the hard line stance taken by Israel. But the report says Adelson’s political spending was motivated by the two federal investigations into his casino empire. “According to sources — and comments from Adelson himself — fears over investigations into his business affairs and worries that Obama would retaliate against people who opposed the president were both part of the catalyst for his giving,” the report said.

“During the election, Adelson told Politico that the Justice Department investigation, and the way he felt treated by prosecutors, was a primary motivation for his investment in Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates,” the report said.

Don’t look for Adelson to pack up and go away. He is reportedly meeting with Washington lawmakers this week. “Adelson plans to visit Washington, according to three separate GOP sources familiar with his travel schedule,” the report said. “While here, he’s arranged Hill meetings with at least one House GOP leader in which he is expected to discuss key issues, including possible changes to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the anti-bribery law that undergirds one federal probe into his casino network, according to a Republican attorney with knowledge of his plans.”

Looks like Adelson is doubling down.

Election Day’s biggest losers

November 8, 2012 9:09 am

When it comes to gambling, the two biggest losers on Election Day were casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Maryland residents.

Adelson spent tens of millions of dollars in an effort to defeat President Obama and other Democrats. But most of his political bets were a bust. Adelson will not have a direct line to the White House. But he may still hear from the feds, given that his casino company is under criminal investigation for violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.

In Maryland, voters narrowly approved a measure that will allow full blown casinos across the state. A relentless advertising campaign by gambling companies underscored the stakes in the vote.

More than $90 million was spent, mostly by two companies, to influence the vote. Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns a casino in West Virginia near Maryland’s border, opposed the ballot question. Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, which wants to build an $800 million casino and resort at National Harbor by the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, spent millions in support of the measure.

The loser in the end will be the Maryland residents who will see an increase in social and economic ills that come with casinos.

The elections to watch for casinos

November 6, 2012 10:04 am

Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is likely keeping a close eye on the outcome of the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

But Adelson and other casino operators may be impacted more by the shift in power in China. The Communist Party there holds a once-a-decade congress starting Thursday that will result in a power shift in its leadership. Those new leaders may look to curb the explosive growth in casino gambling in Macau, where Adelson and other U.S. casino operators, like Steve Wynn, now make the bulk of their profits.

As BusinessWeek reports, there may be “concern about Chinese citizens spiriting wealth outside the mainland to Macau in violation of capital controls, as well as the huge profits being made there by U.S. casino companies.”

The new leaders in China could implement policies designed to curb the rampant corruption that is becoming a threat to the Communist Party’s power. No where is the corruption more prevalent than in Macau, a growing casino capital rife with mobs and prostitution. Adelson’s and Wynn’s respective casino companies are under U.S. investigation for violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.

Any crackdown by the new Chinese leaders could stem the flow of money and tourists to Macau, which is an hour ferry ride from west of Hong Kong. About 28 million people, mostly from mainland China, have visited Macau in the 12 months ending in September. Macau’s casinos raked in $33.5 billion last year, more than five times the amount of Las Vegas.

Adelson donated tens of millions of dollars to help defeat Obama. But in the end, his casino empire may be more impacted by what happens in China than who ends up in the White House.

Las Vegas Sands misled court

September 17, 2012 10:37 am

The Las Vegas Sands profits by stacking the odds against its casino customers. So it should come as no surprise that the casino also tried to play a version of three-card Monte in a Nevada courtroom.

The Sands, which is controlled by billionaire Sheldon Adelson was fined $25,000 for trying deceive the court in a wrongful termination case brought by a former executive of its Macau operations.

At issue are emails and other electronic data sought by Steve Jacobs, the former Sands executive fired in 2010. Sands officials told the court the data could not be removed from Macau due to a local data protection law. But the data had already been copied and removed from Macau in 2010 for review by Sands officials, District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez ruled last week.

The Sands repeated inaccurate statements over several months, and intentionally tried to deceive the court in order to stall the discovery process, the judge wrote. Jacobs’ suit alleges Adelson directed him to investigate Chinese officials and gather information to use against them. Jacobs also alleges Adelson told him to hire a Macau government official, a potential violation of U.S. anti-bribery law and that Adelson approved a “prostitution strategy” to help boost business at the casino. The Sands and Adelson deny the allegations.

The case has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission and Nevada casino regulators, which have all launched criminal investigations. Adelson, a leading donor to the Republican Party and Mitt Romney, has contributed tens of millions of dollars in an effort to defeat President Obama and influence policy in Israel.

Inside Adelson’s casino: politics & profit

August 14, 2012 9:58 am

Eight months ago, most people never heard of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul that controls the Las Vegas Sands empire. But many are now getting a fuller picture of how one of the GOP’s biggest donors mixes politics and profits to get what he wants both here and abroad. (Coincidentally, Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential pick, will be at a fundraiser today at the Sands’s Venetian casino in Las Vegas, where Adelson is expected to attend.)

A page-one story in The New York Times today details how Adelson used cash, connections and clout to expand his casino empire into China’s Macau region. The story details how Adelson turned to a mysterious businessman named Yang Saixin to help win friends and influence top officials in China. Those often-murky efforts included hiring the daughter of a leading international trade official; trying to buy a Chinese basketball team; and calling former U.S. Rep. Tom Delay regarding a resolution condemning China’s human rights record.

Along the way, Adelson’s company has spent millions of dollars to get better connected in China. Questions of where all the money has gone has led to lawsuits and a federal investigation of whether the Sands has violated bribery provisions in the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. Adelson denies any wrongdoing.

In addition to the detailed account in The Times, other publications have weighed in with investigative pieces of Adelson’s casino company, including The Wall Street Journal and Pro Publica. (See here and here.)  For a list of seven surprising facts about Adelson see here. Before throwing his support behind Mitt Romney, Adelson backed Newt Gingrich in a bid to “destroy Romney,” as The Atlantic detailed here. Connie Bruck’s profile of Adelson in The New Yorker in 2008 also provides excellent into how he operates.