Billionaire donor secretly buys influence in Las Vegas

Reporters investigated their own newspaper to seek identity of mysterious new owner

  Las Vegas billionaire  and Sands  chief executive Sheldon Adelson: the Las Vegas Review-Journal   has confirmed a Forbes report that the billionaire casino mogul is its new owner.    Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Las Vegas billionaire and Sands chief executive Sheldon Adelson: the Las Vegas Review-Journal has confirmed a Forbes report that the billionaire casino mogul is its new owner. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters


A day before the fifth Republican presidential debate, candidate Jeb Bush tweeted that he had just finished a meeting of more than an hour with the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Only q left unanswered – who owns the newspaper?” he wrote.

Three days later, after a week-long investigation by the newspaper’s reporters into the identity of last week’s mysterious buyer, who purchased the influential paper for $140 million (€129 million), the paper confirmed a Forbes report that billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson (82) was its new owner.

This was despite Adelson, a Jewish-American uber-donor to the Republican Party, telling CNN at the debate, hosted at his Venetian Resort Hotel casino, that he had “no personal interest” in the Review-Journal. He even tried to mislead, suggesting that the buyer could be another Vegas gambling tycoon, Steve Wynn.

“It is incredibly bizarre,” said Nevada political commentator Jon Ralston. “One theory was that Adelson didn’t want it out there during the debate so that it wouldn’t overshadow him hosting the debate.”

The magnate, estimated to be the 15th richest man in the world with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $24.5 billion, was the single biggest Republican donor in the 2012 presidential election, donating at least $93 million to party candidates.

His family acquired the Las Vegas newspaper through News and Media, a company registered in Delaware where the backers do not need to be disclosed.

The Review-Journal reported that the purchase was co-ordinated by Adelson’s son-in-law Patrick Dumont, a senior executive at his casino conglomerate, Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Ownership of the newspaper gives Adelson a strong hand in Nevada politics and, by dint of the state’s key role in the Republican primary race and as a swing state in the general election, a powerful voice in who becomes the next president of the United States.

Over the past century, Nevada’s six electoral-college votes – the winner needs 270 – went to the victorious candidate every time except one: Jimmy Carter in 1976. Nevada is considered one of up to 10 battleground states that will determine the presidency.

Once a red, conservative state, Nevada has turned dark purple, owing to recent demographic changes. Over the past eight years, it has recorded the largest percentage decline in eligible white voters. In 2012, Barack Obama won 43 per cent of Nevada’s white voters, just as Democratic nominee John Kerry did in 2004. Kerry lost the state by 21,000 voters, however; Obama won it by 68,000.

“Six electoral votes doesn’t mean much in terms of 538 but if Al Gore had carried Nevada in 2000, Florida wouldn’t have been an issue,” according to Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “When there is a lot in play, Nevada could have a role.”

The state’s Republican caucuses on February 23rd come fourth in the first nominating contests after Iowa (February 1st), New Hampshire (February 9th) and South Carolina (February 20th).

The Iowa and Nevada races couldn’t be more different and it is anyone’s guess who could take the nomination if the field doesn’t winnow significantly by the time the candidates roll into Las Vegas.

“The most conservative Christian is who wins Iowa,” says Eric Herzik, a politics professor at the University of Nevada Reno. “That is not what Nevada politics is about. We are a state built on gambling, the bars never close and there is legalised prostitution in 10 counties.”

Florida senator Marco Rubio, who is running third in the polls behind businessman Donald Trump and Texas senator Ted Cruz, lived in the state as a youth and has built a formidable campaign organisation here. So too Cruz, and it is unclear how Trump’s shock-and-awe candidacy will play at the ballot.

“Being the fire-bomb thrower might get you a headline but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it transfers into votes,” Herzik adds.

Of the 13 candidates who passed through Adelson’s hotel this week, the billionaire met four of the five polling highest nationally: Trump, Rubio, Cruz and Bush.

Media watchers suspect that he may try to use the Review-Journal as he has his free Tel Aviv-based newspaper, Israel Hayom, to back Binyamin Netanyahu and his policies. Adelson, who hasn’t endorsed anyone yet, is a moderate on social issues, supports immigration reform and loathes the nuclear deal with Iran.

“What he wants to do this time more than anything is to be with a winner,” says Ralston. “He wants to be with someone who is viable in a general election and I think he thinks that that is Rubio right now, but Rubio has to win a state or two.”