LAS VEGAS (AP) — Casino mogul and GOP super-donor Sheldon Adelson spent a rare afternoon in the public eye Thursday defending his decision to turn his back on a Hong Kong businessman who says he is owed $328 million.
The 79 year-old multibillionaire testified as the lead witness in a breach of contract case playing out for the second time in a Las Vegas court.
Adelson blazed a trail of casino riches in Asia after doing the same thing in Sin City as CEO of Las Vegas Sands.
In recent years, a series of former business associates have sued Sands for a portion of the geyser of profits from the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau.
One such businessman, Richard Suen, claims he made it possible for the casino company to win a license in Macau by arranging meetings between executives and Beijing officials in 2001.
On Thursday, Adelson said those meetings didn’t help the company and noted that licenses are distributed by officials in Macau, not on the mainland.
Less than an hour after he took the stand, Adelson pulled out a handful of pamphlets put together by his convention business in the 1980s to illustrate his qualifications to enter the gambling enclave.
That prompted a call from Suen’s attorneys for a mistrial.
“We have a witness who is attempting to take over this courtroom,” Suen attorney James Pisanelli said.
He said Adelson had stacked the multicolored brochures in a “dramatic fashion” that made an unforgettable impression on the jury.
Judge Rob Bare said the while the evidence was improperly introduced, none of the lawyers appeared to be at fault, and he would not declare a mistrial.
Adelson arrived at the Las Vegas courthouse wearing a suit and white shirt with his initials SGA embroidered on the cuff. The longtime supporter of Israel and the Republican Party made headlines last year when he became made the biggest political donation ever — nearly $100 million with his wife to help GOP candidates.
His wife, Miriam, led him into the courtroom but he approached the witness stand using a marble-handled cane. Suen’s legal team had argued allowing a family member to take him to the stand would sow undue sympathy among the jury.
Sands’ lawyers sought to limit media access to the mogul’s testimony. They argued unsuccessfully to bar video and still photography from the proceedings, and later complained about the clicking noise made by a camera shutter.
Adelson’s testimony was expected to last at least two days.
It’s the second time Suen and Sands have faced off in court over the contract issue. In 2008, a jury awarded $58.6 million to Suen, but the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 2010.
That court said the district judge shouldn’t have allowed hearsay statements during the trial, and should have told the jury to assume Chinese officials were following local laws.
Buoyed in large part by his successes in Macau, Adelson has become the ninth-richest person in America, worth an estimated $26.5 billion, according to Forbes.
Asked on Thursday how many casinos he owns, Adelson paused and counted eight on his fingers. He later amended that to nine. When he met Suen, he owned just one casino — The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip.
Suen, a former business partner of Adelson’s brother, now seeks more than three times the amount he demanded in 2008.
He said he and his company were promised a $5 million success fee and 2 percent of net casino profits in exchange for helping Sands open its first casino in Macau, now the world’s biggest gambling market.
On Thursday, Adelson agreed that those were the terms but said Suen never fulfilled his part of the deal: to deliver a gambling license.
The case hinges on the role that personal relationships, or “guanxi,” play in Chinese culture.
Suen’s team argues that Sands needed to cultivate influence. But the casino countered that Suen is demanding a success fee for setting up a single 40-minute meeting with the mayor of Beijing.
On the stand, Adelson frequently pleaded memory loss when asked about executive decisions, business strategy and meetings.
“I’m not very good at Chinese names. I’m not always so good at English names,” he said.
He also offered that he plans to come back in his next life as a Chinese person because “the Chinese always look 20 years younger than they are.”
The trial judge twice asked Adelson to focus his answers.
Among other things, Suen claims that Adelson used his influence over Republican members of Congress to reassure Beijing’s mayor that a nonbinding resolution denouncing Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics would be killed. Suen says he set up that meeting.
Adelson — who joked about his short stature, confessed to being a “hotdog fiend” and described himself as a “kid from the slums” — said he was too humble of a man to have pulled off such a stunt.
“How does one little guy from a poor family in Boston have some influence to affect the Chinese government’s lobbying with other governments for the International Olympic committee?” he said.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier