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Howard Stutz

Inside gaming: Legal hangover: Another sequel to Las Vegas Sands trial could prove expensive

27 May 2013

by Howard Stutz

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Sequels are never as good as the original.

Just ask Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson.

Apparently, he wants to star in his own version of “The Hangover Part III.”

Las Vegas Sands has lost the same breach of contract lawsuit twice in Clark County District Court.

Despite two jury defeats in six years, Adelson is looking for another day in court on a case that now is 9 years old.

Hong Kong businessman Richard Suen claims he helped Las Vegas Sands win a lucrative Macau gaming license in the early 2000s. He wants to be paid for his efforts.

Las Vegas Sands maintains he did little to line up the license and deserves exactly nothing.

A jury in 2008 ruled in favor of Suen and awarded him $43.8 million, which grew to roughly $58 million with interest. The Nevada Supreme Court, however, tossed the verdict on a technicality.

In the retrial, which concluded May 14, a second jury sided with Suen. This time he won $70 million. With interest, the verdict could climb above $100 million.

Adelson will try to get the second verdict overturned.

I guess the 79-year-old billionaire hasn’t read the critics’ reviews.

What’s a third jury going to do? Hand Suen the keys to The Venetian?

Two Suen trials haven’t painted Adelson, or Las Vegas Sands, in a good way.

During his testimony in April, former Las Vegas Sands President Bill Weidner told jurors the first trial “was injurious to (the company’s) relationships in China.” He also said the case never should have gone to trial.

Weidner repeated his testimony from six years ago. Suen deserved payment for his effort. Maybe not the $328 million — which represented a $5 million fee plus 2 percent of the company’s Macau net profits — but some type of compensation.

Adelson did himself no favors. During his day on the witness stand, he tried to come off as a folksy, self-made common man. Instead, he appeared confused and forgetful, and created a sideshow. He spent the latter part of the trial in court sitting behind his attorneys.

Adelson apparently wanted another crack on the witness stand before the case went to the jury but was dissuaded by his lawyers. Smart move. Additional testimony from Adelson might have persuaded jurors to give Suen everything he was seeking.

The verdict could have been worse. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Tim O’Reiley reported that most of the jurors wanted to give Suen $125 million. The $70 million award was a compromise to reach consensus.

A third Suen trial could be disastrous for Adelson and Las Vegas Sands.

Unlike movie sequels which often recycle the same characters in a different story line, the two Suen trials never wavered from the original’s script. Adelson testified vociferously that Suen did nothing to help him or the company in Macau — an assessment rejected by two different juries.

The Nevada Supreme Court waits, again. Trial experts said District Judge Rob Bare ran a fair courtroom and left little room for appeal. Still, Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese said there were “compelling and sufficient grounds” to overturn the verdict.

So what should Las Vegas Sands do?

Pay Suen. Cut losses. Move on.

Last year, Las Vegas Sands reported revenues of $11.13 billion, of which, $6.4 billion, or 52 percent, came from the company’s casinos in Macau. In the first quarter of 2013, Las Vegas Sands’ revenues topped $3.3 billion. The company’s revenues from Macau hit $2.02 billion, or 61.2 percent.

On a good weekend, $70 million might be found in the drop box of a single Sands Macau baccarat table.

In other words, $70 million isn’t going to bust the company’s balance sheet.

Last year Adelson and his family gave an estimated $100 million to failed Republican political candidates. That was his personal money. So what’s another $70 million?

Adelson argues that if he pays Suen, other potential litigants will be crawling out of the woodwork with frivolous lawsuits.

In 2009, Las Vegas Sands settled a similar case brought by three men who also claimed to have helped with the company’s Macau licensing efforts. Las Vegas Sands paid $42.5 million according to the company’s quarterly financial report.

There is one other lawsuit surrounding Las Vegas Sands’ Macau licensing process pending with a Taiwan-based venture. The Judiciary Council of Macau is handling that case.

Adelson and Las Vegas Sands still have to deal with a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former Sands China CEO Steven Jacobs. His complaint included allegations that the company violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribing former government officials.

The case caused the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice to open investigations of the company.

By the time the various Las Vegas Sands lawsuits are sorted out, the legal system could be suffering its own hangover.

The original “Hangover” movie was brilliant. “The Hangover Part II” was awful. Critics — including the Review-Journal’s Christopher Lawrence — say “The Hangover Part III” is not as good as the first movie, but better than Part II.

One piece of advice Adelson might want to remember as he plots Suen III: If the first movie bombs, don’t go for a sequel.

That’s why there was never an “Ishtar II” or “Glitter, The Final Outrage.”