You may have heard by now, it was in all the papers, that Sheldon Adelson, billionaire owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which has casinos in Las Vegas and Macau, has sued a Wall Street Journal reporter in a Hong Kong court over an article in which he was described as “a scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester, Mass,” with whom disagreements could turn into a “junkyard dogfight.”
The 79-year-old Adelson did not sue the newspaper or a second reporter who shared a byline on the Dec. 5, 2012, story.
The Daily Beast, to put the story in perspective, asked a newspaper columnist who had been sued previously by Adelson to tell his tale.
In the piece longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith recounts how he was sued by Adelson, not over his column, but over a passage in a book about Las Vegas big-wigs called “Sharks in the Desert”:
“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.”
Both John and his publisher ended up declaring bankruptcy due to the expense of relentless litigation.
Because the Review-Journal published excerpts from the book, including the chapter about Adelson, though I had edited out the section that was the grounds for his libel suit against Smith, I wound up having to give a deposition.
I wrote a couple of columns at the time about the surreal experience.
It took place in a tiny downtown office with Los Angeles attorney Marty Singer, “an aggressive plaintiff’s lawyer to the stars whose style includes florid and bombastic letters threatening legal action and financial ruin on behalf of his famous and deep-pocketed clientele,” I wrote at the time.
I figured Singer had to be tuckered out after having just spent 5 1/2 billable hours deposing Smith in the same office. John later described it as a brutal brow-beating.
According to Singer’s lawsuit, as recounted in another column, “Smith deceptively manipulates language, quotations and sources in order to concoct the smear that Adelson had dealings with the Boston Mob when Adelson was in the vending machine business. Smith’s claims are baseless — part of Smith’s Procrustean effort to find gangsters and molls behind every casino door.” (Procrustes was a robber in Greek legend who strapped his house guests to an iron bed. In order to make them fit, he either stretched them or cut off their legs. Of course, like the facts in the hands of crafty litigators, the victims never fit because the bed was adjustable.)
Among other things, Singer asked me if I would “consider it interesting about Sheldon Adelson’s beginning career, that he would … that he had Boston-area vending machines when he was a young man, a teenager, that were the target of mob influence.” That was the part I’d cut out of the newspaper excerpts.
I wanted to blurt out that this is Las Vegas, and if you’ve not had some “mob influence” in your life you’re a certified wallflower. Mob influences are old hat. Instead, I politely stated that the passage was cut “for the sake of brevity.”
In the column I pointed out that for a public figure to successfully win a libel case there have to be damages. Since the book was published, Adelson has gone from 15th richest in the world to sixth. Hardly damaging.
At one point Singer pulled out an incredibly indecipherable third-generation photocopy of an article with a generic illustration of a clown with dollar signs for eyes. He had it marked Exhibit 43, apparently to be used as evidence the Review-Journal was biased against Adelson.
I later tracked down a legible copy of the article. It turns out it was a 1998 op-ed piece penned by Shelley Berkley, who later became a U.S. representative, in reply to an attack on her published the prior week in the Review-Journal and written by none other than Sheldon Adelson. He accused Berkley of advising him, while in his employ as vice president of legal and government affairs, to do favors for county commissioners, get jobs for relatives, lease space to certain vendors. He proudly proclaimed he “wouldn’t be extorted” and had fired Berkley.
In Berkley’s reply, now Exhibit 43, she stated, “Over time, I observed Mr. Adelson plot vendettas against anyone whom he believed stood in his way. However minuscule the perceived affront, he was certain to go ballistic, using his money and position to bully any ‘opponent’ — great or small — into submission.”
The attorney for the WSJ reporter might wish to depose Berkley, because in libel cases truth is a defense.
Adelson dropped his suit against Smith shortly after attorney Don Campbell was able to obtain a copy of Adelson’s Gaming Control Board licensing file. If the case had gone to trial that information could have come out in open court, and apparently Adelson did not wish to see that happen.
Today John is having is head shaved by his now 17-year-old daughter Amelia for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money in an attempt to find a cure for childhood cancer. You can donate online. Be sure and designate the money is for Amelia’s Team.
As a sort of post script, today both The Wall Street Journal and the Review-Journal are reporting that the Sands Corp. has filed an SEC document saying the company may have violated a federal law that bans the bribing of foreign public officials. That was one of the allegations in the litigation between Adelson and a former Macau-based Sands executive that was the topic of the original WSJ story that drew the libel suit.