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No Surprise: Adelson in the Cross Hairs

Those with wealth have to know media and government scrutiny comes with their money. And if such persons choose to involve themselves in politics, then that scrutiny is bound to be even greater. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire supporter of Jewish philanthropies and Republican political candidates, probably understood this long before he became the subject of so much attention this year. But the focus on Adelson today makes it more clear than ever that the controversial campaign donor’s willingness to put himself in the spotlight means his business dealings are going to be gone over with a fine tooth comb by both the media and federal authorities as they search for something with which to hang him.

Adelson is the subject of a lengthy investigative piece that appears on the front page of today’s New York Times. According to the story, a former “front man” in China for the casino mogul’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation is being investigated about funds that may have been used to bribe foreign officials in connection with the company’s efforts to expand their business there. If true, that would violate U.S. laws that forbid such shenanigans. It’s a messy and complicated tale that has drawn the attention of Chinese authorities, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Times and the Wall Street Journal. But it is far from clear that Adelson has violated any law or done anything that any other big business–which chooses to operate in a country where corruption is rife and the rule of law is a hazy concept–hasn’t done. It may well be that anyone whose prosperity is derived from gambling is going to be subjected to such investigations. But the idea that he has mixed “politics and profits” as the Times put it, seems to imply there is something not kosher about him even if no wrongdoing can be proved. That leaves cynical observers wondering whether the outrage about Adelson’s dealings would be quite so acute if he were not a leading backer of conservative and Israeli causes.

The assumption underlying these investigations is that Adelson’s successful efforts to open gambling casinos in Macao as well as his unsuccessful attempt to do business in mainline China itself had to be crooked or at least the result of some sort of bribery. Given the level of corruption in China, a country that combines authoritarian communist politics with wild and woolly capitalism, it’s difficult to assert that any business dealings there, especially concerning gambling, were pristine. But a close reading of both the Times investigation as well as the one conducted by the Journal, shows the case is more about such assumptions than any actual proof of law-breaking by Adelson.

The most damning piece of evidence about Adelson in the Times feature isn’t new. It’s the oft-told story of how Adelson used his access to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to convince him to shelve a congressional resolution opposing the holding of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in order to please his Chinese interlocutors. That wasn’t to the credit of either Adelson or DeLay, but it wasn’t illegal. Given the fact that virtually the entire American political establishment — including those with no ties to the casino owner — made a conscious decision a decade or more ago to treat the issue of Chinese human rights violations as a minor obstacle to better relations with Beijing that was best ignored, it’s difficult to get too worked up about Adelson’s minor role in this shift.

Nor is it easy to manufacture outrage about corruption in Macao or China. The practice of hiring local fixers called guanxi to smooth the path of foreign businessman there is well-known. The line between the apparently common practice of paying such people sums of money to gain government permission to operate in the country and bribery may be so thin as to be almost non-existent.

Nevertheless, Adelson’s company is going to be given a thorough going over by U.S. authorities. Sands is cooperating with the government, and if they are penalized or prosecuted, the legal process will be long and as complicated as the investigation. We can only hope justice will be done one way or another.

But all one has to do is to read many of the hundreds of comments posted by readers in response to the Times article to understand that any public anger about Adelson has more to do with his public identity as an unashamed backer of Israel and Jewish causes and his support for Republican candidates. The anti-Semitic nature of these comments is repulsive. No matter what you think of gambling or even Adelson’s politics, the prime motivation for those who claim to support further investigation of Sands’ activities in China seems to be to discredit anyone who has the chutzpah to use his wealth to bolster Israel or conservative politics. The bottom line here is that while we cannot know the ultimate outcome of this investigation, the one thing Adelson is definitely guilty of is using his money to promote ideas the left despises.