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Will Adelson’s deep pockets influence the push to legalize online gaming?


Christopher DeVargas

Las Vegas Sands CEO and Chairman Sheldon Adelson makes a few remarks after receiving the Hospitality Industry Leader of the Year award at the eighth-annual Vallen Dinner of Distinction, April 26, 2012.

Thu, Jun 28, 2012 (2 a.m.)

As Nevada gaming lobbyists diligently lay the groundwork for what might be a final end-of-the-year push for federal legislation legalizing online poker, perhaps the biggest wild card is a man who has vowed to spend as much as $100 million influencing this year’s election.

Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has spent $26 million on the presidential race and is likely to sink resources into Nevada’s U.S. Senate race — in which his longtime nemesis, Democrat Shelley Berkley, is running.

And Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., doesn’t like online gambling. At all.

Berkley’s Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, stands to benefit from the substantial influence and money Adelson will bring to the race. But Heller continues to favor online poker.

“Sen. Heller continues to support legalizing Internet poker and has been working closely with both Sen. (Harry) Reid and Sen. (Jon) Kyl on legislation to achieve this goal,” Heller’s spokesman, Stewart Bybee, said in a written statement.

Bybee said Heller wasn’t available for an interview for this story.

Jan Jones, vice president of public affairs for Caesars Entertainment, which has been actively lobbying for passage of online poker legislation, echoed Bybee’s statement.

“Sen. Heller has been excellent,” Jones said. “He’s fully engaged and understands the importance of the legislation to Nevada.”

As a Republican in the Senate, Heller could play a role in winning over skeptical members of his party — those who worry about the proliferation of gambling if Congress legalizes online poker. Indeed, some blame former Sen. John Ensign for failing in that role in 2010 when he was in the thick of the scandal surrounding his extramarital affair.

Kyl, an Arizona Republican, had been a roadblock to the legislation but has since been convinced that gambling proliferation would be worse if individual states jump into the business, creating a patchwork of licensing and regulatory schemes.

That’s starting to happen now in the wake of a Department of Justice opinion that the federal Wire Act prohibits only online sports betting, not all online gambling.

Nevada companies are ramping up in preparation not just for federal legalization, but also to enter markets in states that legalize online play. Station Casinos this month launched Ultimate Poker, a free play site, on Facebook. Also this month, the Nevada Gaming Commission issued online betting licenses to Bally Technologies and International Game Technology.

Although Nevada gaming companies stand ready to take advantage of individual state markets, they are better poised to capitalize on a national market, where their name-brand sites are familiar.

But even as lobbyists rush to convince lawmakers that a federal law legalizing online poker — and outlawing other types of Internet gambling — is needed, many say it’s Adelson who should be worked. Adelson’s influence with Republican leadership in the House, especially Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is more of a threat to online poker legislation than the money he is spending to back Heller, lobbyists say.

“Eric and Sheldon talk all the time; it’s an ongoing dialogue,” one industry lobbyist said. “Dean is one vote, where Eric controls the agenda.”

The question is how engaged Adelson decides to become on the issue.

Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese did not return a call for comment for this story.

Adelson has a strong personal opposition to online gambling, fearing the potential for minors and others to develop addictions from the ease of access.

But how strongly he’ll press the issue from a public policy standpoint remains to be seen.

Some have noted an evolution of Adelson’s stance on the issue.

“He’s gone from, ‘I’m against it, but I won’t be active in it,’ to making more public statements against it, and now he’s told important people in Congress he’s against it,” one lobbyist said. “So he seems to be getting stronger and more active in his opposition.”

Others say online poker is hardly near the top of Adelson’s priority list.

“Sheldon’s No. 1 desire is that Barack Obama is never re-elected,” a gaming lobbyist said. “His No. 2 desire is that the Senate goes Republican. Those two things seem to be higher in his game than killing Internet gaming.”

Heller’s staff declined to answer questions about whether Heller has worked to win Adelson’s support for the effort or has otherwise been lobbied by Adelson on the issue.

Proponents of the measure think it’s possible Adelson could be won over using the same argument that apparently persuaded Kyl to drop his opposition: One, that online poker is happening now with little enforcement and no oversight; and two, that the Justice Department has opened a Pandora’s box of states that want in on the action.

“The problem is that everybody has talked to Sheldon,” Jones said. “He has a very strong opinion about underage gambling, which I respect. But maybe he doesn’t fully understand that it is happening now with no protection or regulation.”

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