Adelson lawsuit describes pressure on NJDC to apologize

Sheldon Adelson is suing the National Jewish Democratic Council for $60 million for intimating in an online petition that he approved of prostitution at his Macau casino, shown here.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — Sheldon Adelson’s $60 million defamation lawsuit against the National Jewish Democratic Council describes extensive efforts by his representatives, including Alan Dershowitz, to talk the group into apologizing for intimating that the casino magnate approved of prostitution.

The 16-page lawsuit was filed in New York City’s federal courthouse on Wednesday.

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Lawyers for Adelson, one of the worlds’ wealthiest men, a major Republican donor and probably the single largest U.S. giver to Jewish and Israeli causes, had sent a warning letter to the NJDC and to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last month after each body quoted news reports alleging that Adelson had approved of prostitution at his properties in Macau, China. 

That allegation appeared in a lawsuit file by a former Adelson employee, Steven Jacobs, who had managed Adelson’s Macau business until being fired in 2010.

The DCCC apologized last week for referencing the allegation in news releases sent June 22 and July 2. 

Under pressure from Jewish groups, the NJDC removed an online petition calling on Republicans to stop accepting money from Adelson — but it would not apologize.

“We don’t believe we engaged in character assassination,” said the July 11 statement announcing the petition’s removal and signed by NJDC president David Harris and chairman Marc Stanley, who also are named in Adelson’s lawsuit. “We stand by everything we said, which was sourced from current, credible news accounts.”

Instead, Stanley and Harris said, they were removing the petition in the name of “shalom bayit,” the Hebrew term for peace in the family.

The original NJDC petition had cited an Associated Press story quoting parts of Jacobs lawsuit. Nothing in the AP story aside from the quote from Jacobs’ lawsuit validated the prostitution claim. 

The AP story notes that federal investigators are interested in claims by Jacobs in the lawsuit that Adelson’s business authorized bribes to Chinese officials.  In addition to the prostitution allegation, the NJDC petition cited the bribery investigations as well as Adelson’s clashes with unions to bolster its claim that Adelson’s money was “dirty.”

Adelson’s publicist, Ron Reese, had no immediate comment, but the lawsuit suggests the NJDC’s non-apology made matters worse, citing not just the July 3 petition, but the July 11 statement removing the petition to make its case.  The claim by Harris and Stanley that they “stand by” what they described as “credible news accounts” was in itself “false and defamatory,” the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit details how, through an interlocutor, Adelson tried to show Harris that Jacobs was lying.

It quoted what it said was a 2009 email from Jacobs to Michael Leven, Adelson’s chief operating officer, asking whether Adelson had approved of prostitution. The lawsuit does not quote the email at length or explain why Jacobs would make such a query, but it does quote him as saying that allowing prostitution would “seem at odds with what I know to be Sheldon’s ‘no tolerance’ policy.”

Leven responds the next day, May 12 2009, and says “there is no evidence that can be found that anyone here supported in anyway (sic) a different policy than we have in las vegas (sic),” the lawsuit reports.

The lawsuit says Harris was contacted after the July 3 petition was posted and that the email exchange between Jacobs and Leven was described to him.

Alan Dershowitz, the famed First Amendment lawyer and Harvard professor, told JTA on Wednesday that he was the interlocutor who reached out to Harris on Adelson’s behalf.

“I had a conversation with David Harris in which I personally told him the same man whom they quote as having made the allegation in an email had said he doesn’t believe the allegation to be true,” Dershowitz said.

Jacobs’ email, at least as quoted in the lawsuit, does not address the veracity of the prostitution allegation; it only notes that the allegation would seem at odds with Adelson’s stated policies. Harris would not comment on his conversation with Dershowitz. 

Dershowitz, a Democrat who was among the notable Jewish individuals who had called on Harris and NJDC to rescind the petition as soon as it appeared, said Harris’ refusal to apologize disqualifies him to represent Democrats or Jews.

“He is now doing more harm to Democrats and the Jewish community than good,” he said. “They are willfully spreading a lashon hora that they know to be false,” Dershowitz said, using the Hebrew term for malicious gossip.

Dershowitz said he could not comment on the speech freedom merits of the NJDC’s case because he may be called upon to act as a witness should the lawsuit go to trial. 

Dershowitz has been paid twice by organizations associated with Adelson; once for speaking at the Jewish day school founded by Adelson and his wife, Miriam, in Las Vegas; and once as a lawyer helping to represent Adelson’s Venetian casino in its efforts to keep union picketers off sidewalks adjacent to the hotel. The Venetian lost that case. Dershowitz said that 2001 case occurred before he met Adelson.

“The work he does for Jewish education is unmatched,” Dershowitz said.

Adelson seems particularly galled in the lawsuit by the prostitution allegation because of work he and his wife fund in Israel to rehabilitate prostitutes. “The Adelson clinics work to support these women, provide them with drug abuse treatment, and end their involvement in prostitution,” it says.

The lawsuit notes Adelson’s continued efforts to get the NJDC to stand down, including its July 17 warning letter, and then outreach from Adelson’s lawyers to the NJDC on Aug. 3 to note the DCCC apology, issued the day before.

The NJDC said in a statement Wednesday announcing the lawsuit that it would stand its ground.

“Referencing mainstream press accounts examining the conduct of a public figure and his business ventures — as we did — is wholly appropriate,” NJDC said in a statement Wednesday revealing the lawsuit. “Indeed, it is both an American and a Jewish obligation to ask hard questions of powerful individuals like Mr. Adelson, just as it is incumbent upon us to praise his wonderful philanthropic endeavors.”

The statement called Adelson’s lawsuit a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, a term used for legal maneuvers aimed not at obtaining justice but silence.

“We know that we were well within our rights, and we will defend ourselves against this SLAPP suit as far and as long as necessary,” NJDC said. “We simply will not be bullied, and we will not be silenced.”

Bad blood between Harris and Adelson runs deeper than the usual Republican-Democrat square-off. Harris appeared at the Jewish Federations of North America TribeFest gathering in Las Vegas for young leaders on March 25 as a surrogate in a debate on the merits of the presidential candidates. Adelson walked into the event, which took place at his Venetian hotel, and berated Harris for six minutes, using insulting terms to describe Obama, and harrumphing out loud when Harris attempted to respond.

Late Wednesday, NJDC blasted followers with an email fundraising off the lawsuit. “Your support at this moment is more important than ever,” said the email, with the subject line “We’ve been sued for $60 million.”