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Casino Mogul, GOP Donor Sheldon Adelson's Man in China Is Focus of Probe

Monday, 13 August 2012 13:41 By Edward Wong, Michael Luo and Neil Gough, The New York Times News Service | Report
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Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul, in attendance as Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential candidate, speaks in Jerusalem, July 29, 2012. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul, in attendance as Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential candidate, speaks in Jerusalem, July 29, 2012. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)When Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, needed something done in China, he often turned to his company's "chief Beijing representative," a mysterious businessman named Yang Saixin.

Mr. Yang arranged meetings for Mr. Adelson with senior Chinese officials, acted as a frontman on several ambitious projects for Mr. Adelson's company, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, and intervened on the Sands's behalf with Chinese regulators. Mr. Yang even had his daughter take Mr. Adelson's wife, Miriam, shopping when she was in Beijing.

"Adelson and I had a good relationship," Mr. Yang said in a recent interview in Hong Kong. "He should thank me."

Mr. Yang joined the Sands in 2007 as the company worked to protect its interests in Macau, where its gambling revenues were mushrooming, and pressed ahead with plans for a resort in mainland China. Boasting of ties to the People's Liberation Army and China's state security apparatus, Mr. Yang was hired for his guanxi, that mixture of relationships and favors that is critical to opening doors in China, according to former executives.

But today, Mr. Yang, along with tens of millions of dollars in payments the Sands made through him in China, is a focus of a wide-ranging federal investigation into potential bribery of foreign officials and other matters in China and Macau, according to people with knowledge of the inquiries.

The investigations are unfolding as Mr. Adelson has become an increasing presence in this year's presidential election, contributing at least $35 million to Republican groups. On Tuesday, Mitt Romney's running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, is to appear at a fund-raiser at the Sands's Venetian casino in Las Vegas; Mr. Adelson is likely to attend, according to a person close to him.

In the political arena, Mr. Adelson is perhaps best known as a hawkish defender of Israel. But whatever the outcome of the inquiries involving his businesses in China, an examination of those activities suggests a keen interest in Washington's China policy and highlights the degree to which politics and profits are often intertwined for Mr. Adelson.

The Sands has faced a conundrum in China as a casino company whose fortunes are heavily dependent on its operations in a country where gambling is illegal, except in Macau. The company relies on the good will of Chinese officials, who mete out approvals and have the power to curtail the flow of mainland visitors. As a result, Mr. Adelson has sought to use financial clout and connections to exert political influence at the highest levels of government.

On the front lines of those efforts was Mr. Yang, who was paid a $30,000-a-month retainer by the company before he was fired in 2009, he said. At times, he acted as Mr. Adelson's personal guide to the Chinese establishment. Among the dignitaries he took Mr. Adelson to see was Wan Jifei, a leading international trade official whose father had been vice premier. That led to a lunch with other trade officials at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.

The Sands later hired Mr. Wan's daughter, Bao Bao, a socialite and jewelry designer, to do public relations. And the trade agency Mr. Wan ran became a partner in the Sands's biggest venture, the Adelson Center for U.S.-China Enterprise.

Mr. Yang denies resorting to bribery and says he actually lost money on his dealings with the Sands.

"I'm really being bullied because I helped Venetian and Adelson do so many things," he said. "I'm in the middle, and on both sides everybody's pointing at me."

The broad outlines of the mainland China investigation were reported last week by The Wall Street Journal. But a review of more than a thousand pages of corporate records in China, as well as interviews with former Sands executives and others, provides a more detailed picture.

The documents show that the Sands paid out more than $70 million to companies tied to Mr. Yang for the trade center and for a Chinese basketball team the Sands sponsored. But several million dollars appear to be unaccounted for after the projects were suddenly shut down by the company, The New York Times found.

What became of any missing money and whether any of it wound up in the hands of Chinese officials are among the questions being examined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Compounding the Sands's legal headaches in China, several of the company's subsidiaries came under investigation by Chinese regulators, resulting in a $1.6 million fine, according to Chinese corporate records. Mr. Yang said the penalty might have been much higher, but he "coordinated the matter" with the agency.

Federal investigators began looking into the Sands's China activities after the former president of the company's Macau operations filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit in 2010. The former executive, Steven C. Jacobs, charged, among other things, that he had been pressured to exercise improper leverage against government officials in Macau, and that the company had turned a blind eye to Chinese organized crime figures operating in its casinos. (The Jacobs lawsuit raised questions about payments to another well-connected local figure — a lawyer and legislator in Macau — that were recently explored by ProPublica and are also part of the federal bribery investigation.)

The Sands declined to respond to a detailed list of questions provided by The Times more than a week ago, saying in a statement that it was cooperating with the inquiries and was confident that once they were concluded "no current member of senior management will have been found to have been involved in wrongdoing."

'Vegas of the Far East'

In mid-2000, Richard Suen, a Hong Kong businessman, met with Mr. Adelson in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong to relay some urgent news. China, which had recently assumed control of Macau — the former Portuguese colony across from Hong Kong on the south China coast — was ending the gambling monopoly of the local tycoon Stanley Ho and would be taking bids for a limited number of gambling licenses.

Mr. Adelson peppered Mr. Suen with questions. According to testimony by Mr. Suen, who sued the Sands after his relationship with the company soured, Mr. Adelson made a bold prediction: "I can turn Macau into the Las Vegas of the Far East."

The company set out to cultivate senior Chinese officials. In the summer of 2001, Mr. Adelson and William P. Weidner, then the Sands's president, flew to Beijing for meetings arranged by Mr. Suen.

Chinese leaders at the time were worried about a pending House resolution condemning the country's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games because of its human rights record. According to Mr. Weidner's deposition in the Suen case, Mr. Adelson promised Beijing's mayor he would do what he could. Mr. Adelson called his friend Tom DeLay, then the House majority whip, catching him at a Fourth of July barbecue. Mr. DeLay said he would check on the resolution's status.

Several hours later, Mr. DeLay called and told Mr. Adelson he was in luck. The resolution was stuck behind a series of other bills.

"So you tell your mayor, it can be assured that this bill will never see the light of day," Mr. DeLay said, according to Mr. Weidner.

The next morning, the Sands executives met with Qian Qichen, a Chinese vice premier, at the Purple Light Pavilion, where the government's leaders greet foreign dignitaries. Mr. Qian suggested he would ensure a limitless supply of gamblers to Macau.

In May 2004, the Sands Macau became the first foreign-owned casino in the enclave. On opening day, a mob estimated at 20,000 pushed over crowd-control barriers, ripping doors off their hinges. In its first year, the casino's profits exceeded its entire $265 million cost.

By 2007, when the Las Vegas Sands opened its second casino in Macau, the $2.4 billion Venetian — the largest in the world — the formerly crime-infested backwater had become the world's undisputed gambling capital. With Macau providing tw0-thirds of the company's revenues, Mr. Adelson had become one of the richest men in the world.

He had wider ambitions still. The Sands was hoping for government approval for a plan to cross over into the mainland by building a 1,300-acre resort on Hengqin Island near Macau.

A Sands promotional brochure circulated in China promoted an endorsement from Hu Jintao, China's president, as well as meetings Mr. Adelson and Mr. Weidner had with Mr. Qian, the vice premier, and other top Chinese officials. The Sands also hosted a promotional forum in late 2006, called Venetian Nights, at the Great Hall of the People.

The gambling boom, though, was stoking suspicion among Chinese officials, who worried about the corrupting influence of money sloshing through Macau.

The Sands pursued a strategy of engaging with Beijing. It stepped up participation in China-related programs with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and hired Myron Brilliant, its senior vice president for international affairs, as a consultant. He suggested establishing a trade center, to help American businesses pursue opportunities in China. Not only could the center funnel convention traffic to Macau, it could foster better relations with Chinese officials.

To carry out its China campaign, the Sands needed a man in Beijing. It hired Yang Saixin.

The Intermediary

Mr. Yang, 60, is a laconic, deliberative man who appears to eschew the nouveau riche lifestyle embraced by many Chinese businesspeople. He did a stint with the People's Liberation Army as a young man and, in his 30s, was involved in a variety of ventures across the country, from amusement parks to a concrete plant. Today, he carries a mainland Chinese passport and a Hong Kong identity card, and also goes by the Cantonese Yeung Tsoi-san.

He told one Sands executive that he had won the attention of generals as a star basketball player in the army and had connections to a central government security agency. But Wu Bang, a journalist who interviewed Mr. Yang many times, said Mr. Yang was a minor athlete in the army who had headed the workers' union in a military factory, and did not seem to have any special military or security connections. In a recent interview, Mr. Yang backed away from any claims of ties to a security agency and said he was not a regular enlisted man but had been invited by an army unit to play and coach basketball.

Mr. Yang was running a soccer club in the boomtown of Shenzhen when he heard about the company's plans for nearby Hengqin Island. Looking for sponsors, he said he contacted a Sands executive and started working with the company doing a variety of things. In summer 2007 his team wound up playing an exhibition match hosted by the Sands against Manchester United, of the English Premier League. It was around that time that Mr. Yang was formally given the title chief Beijing representative.

Mr. Yang said his main job was setting up meetings and making introductions. Indeed, it was an introduction to the chairman of the state-owned China International Travel Service that led the Sands to find space for the Adelson Center in the travel service's building in central Beijing.

The Sands, though, could not buy the property outright, because of restrictions on foreigners buying commercial real estate. Instead, the Sands decided to "lie to the Chinese government," said Mr. Yang, using him and three associates as front men for a cluster of companies anchored by Beijing Chiya Trading, which bought the space with money from the Sands.

"On paper and in the eyes of the law we were shareholders, but in actuality we were just like hired laborers," he said.

Another piece of the Sands's charm offensive was buying a Chinese basketball team.

Again, Mr. Yang assumed the role of intermediary. The company set its sights on the financially struggling Shaanxi Topsun, with the idea of moving the team south to Shenzhen, not far from Macau. Fans could hop the ferry to gamble, and some games could be held in the Venetian Macau's 15,000-seat arena.

Word of a deal trickled out in Chinese press reports in the spring of 2007, alerting Li Yuanwei, then commissioner of the Chinese basketball association, who wrote in a 2010 memoir that he found it "completely unacceptable" for a gambling company to be involved in basketball.

To win his approval for the purchase, Mr. Li said in the memoir and a recent interview, Mr. Yang and his Chinese associates resorted to blackmail and bribery. Mr. Li said they threatened him with a lawsuit based on a secret recording of a meeting about the sale. In June 2007, Mr. Li was invited to a dinner arranged by a sports journalist known to Mr. Yang. Mr. Li sent a colleague. Mr. Yang's aides were present, as was an artist who handed a painting of a tiger to the basketball league official as a gift. Later, Mr. Yang's associates informed Mr. Li that the painting was worth about $4,000, Mr. Li said.

"They later said to me: 'Now you're in possession of the painting, and it's worth this much. Either you have to pay us back that money, or we'll go over your head and say you took a painting worth that much,' " Mr. Li said in the interview.

Mr. Yang said he was not involved in the matter, calling the painting "just a gift between friends."

Corporate filings show the Sands wound up pursuing a slightly different path. Two Sands subsidiaries paid Mr. Yang about $9.7 million for advertising, sponsorship and naming rights for the team, as opposed to outright ownership. The team name changed to Venezia Arena, or "Weilixin," a Mandarin transliteration of "Venetian."

China Projects Dropped

The Adelson Center had been scheduled to open on Aug. 8, 2008 — an auspicious date in Chinese numerology — in time for the Summer Olympics. But renovations dragged on, and the project was abruptly abandoned in September 2008. The center's chief financial officer, Chu Jiangbin, said he was told suddenly one day to fire the more than 20 employees.

Around the same time, the Sands cut its ties to the Shaanxi basketball team and also announced it had "indefinitely" suspended plans for Hengqin Island.

Company officials said they folded their mainland ventures for purely financial reasons. The global credit crisis had hit the company hard, and Beijing had begun clamping down on the flow of gamblers to Macau. The Sands pressed the United States Embassy in Beijing to lobby Chinese officials to change the policy, and Mr. Adelson had to put about $1 billion into the company to help it avoid defaulting on its loans.

But the China projects had also become enmeshed in legal and political complications.

The first allegations about missing money surfaced when a former employee of the basketball team told the Sands that Mr. Yang was double-dealing, charging the company an inflated price for the sponsorship and pocketing the difference.

In Macau, the finance executive who kept the books for the Sands's China projects also raised questions about Mr. Yang after she noticed irregularities in payments for the basketball team and the trade center, according to people familiar with the events. The executive, Yvonne Mao, left the company soon after but remained on the payroll for more than a year, for reasons that are not entirely clear. She declined requests for comment.

A review of corporate records shows that Mr. Yang's company, Chiya, paid 310 million renminbi, or about $41 million at the time, to buy more than 200,000 square feet of space for the Adelson Center. A pair of Sands subsidiaries in China transferred 329.77 million renminbi to Chiya in return for the rights to use the building, the records show. The Sands also spent about $19 million to renovate the center.

But after the deal unraveled, Chiya refunded only 290.82 million renminbi to the Sands, or about $6 million less than it paid for the property alone.

An auditor's report said the Sands subsidiary that held the naming rights to the basketball team made a sharp reversal in 2008 because of "a change in the economic environment" and wrote off its entire $9.7 million investment.

Such discrepancies prompted internal inquiries by lawyers for the Sands.

In addition, some Sands subsidiaries had come under investigation by China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange for a variety of violations, including using money for business purposes other than those reported to the authorities. The Ministry of Commerce and Chinese courts froze the bank accounts and corporate registrations of some Sands subsidiaries, filings show.

Senior Sands officials were told that the consequences of the SAFE investigation could be hefty.

"Laws relating to foreign exchange and regulations promulgated by SAFE, as well as other laws (like those relating to corrupt practices) that might be applicable, allow for criminal prosecution of those in charge of, or responsible for, violations," warned a January 2009 memo from a law firm that handled legal issues for the company in China. The Sands and its executives were in a "very dangerous situation," according to the document.

The company faced a potential fine of up to $30 million, Mr. Yang said, until he helped get it reduced to $1.6 million.

There was also growing anger toward Mr. Adelson from government officials in Beijing and Macau, according to former executives and others with direct knowledge of the matter. Mr. Adelson's mercurial personality had managed to alienate many in Macau's government. Beijing officials' ire was aroused when Mr. Adelson's 2001 private meeting with China's vice premier was revealed during the 2008 Suen trial.

The episode represented a loss of face for the Beijing leadership, and one person close to the situation said the resulting push-back indicated Mr. Adelson had worn out his welcome in China.

In September 2008, a Sands lawyer appealed to the United States ambassador to China, Clark T. Randt Jr., for help arranging a meeting for Mr. Adelson with Vice President Xi Jinping, according to an e-mail exchange provided to The Times. But Mr. Randt relayed that the Chinese ambassador had told him a "lawsuit involving Congress" — apparently the Suen case — would make it difficult.

Messy Breakup in Beijing

The Sands's breakup with its chief Beijing representative proved messy. Mr. Yang said he was suddenly dismissed in early 2009 by the Sands's head of Asian development, Eric Chiu, who said only that the firing had been ordered from company headquarters. A dispute between the Sands and Mr. Yang over repayment of money paid for the Adelson Center was eventually settled in court in Beijing.

It is unclear what ultimately became of the internal Sands inquiry into Mr. Yang and the missing money.

"In the end, the company's hasty exit from China caused bookkeeping errors, but multiple investigations have not found evidence of corrupt payments," said Mr. Weidner, the former Sands president, who was a major driver of the company's China engagement strategy.

A little-noticed transaction last month in Macau hinted that Mr. Yang has become problematic for the Sands. Ms. Mao, the finance executive, had also raised concerns about a contract Mr. Yang helped arrange for the operation of Sands's ferry between Hong Kong and Macau — another venture being looked into by federal investigators. Last month, the Sands redid the agreement, cutting out a company tied to an associate of Mr. Yang. When asked why, a ferry official said, "It's top secret."

Today in Beijing, the first floor of the building that housed the trade center is a car showroom, stocked with shiny black sedans. An employee said that he remembers a sign on the building that was removed. It said "Adelson Center" in Chinese.

But Mr. Adelson has hardly retreated. Sands executives say a renewed strategy of engaging with Beijing has improved relations. The Sands now has four casinos in Macau, which supply about half the company's profits.

Its business continues to be vulnerable to policy machinations in Beijing over issues as narrow as visa approvals and as sweeping as currency valuation. And, to some degree, that also makes the company dependent on American policy and attitudes toward China.

As Mr. Adelson has emerged as perhaps the biggest donor in the presidential race, he has remained defiant about the legal questions swirling around his company.

Asked about them at an industry conference last year, he said, "When the smoke clears, I am absolutely — not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent — positive that there won't be any fire below it."

Michael Luo reported from New York, Neil Gough from Macau and Hong Kong, and Edward Wong from Beijing and Shenzhen, China. Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Macau and Hong Kong, and Louise Story from New York. Research was contributed by Mia Li and Sue-Lin Wong from Beijing, Xu Yan from Shanghai and Kitty Bennett from Seattle.

This story originally appeared at The New York Times.

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