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Sheldon Adelson’s casino company admits it 'likely' broke federal law

Stephen EngelbergProPublica

Last week's admission by Sheldon Adelson's casino company that it had "likely" violated provisions of the federal law barring U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials raises some intriguing questions. Chief among them: Which transactions by Las Vegas Sands and its far-flung subsidiaries are at issue?

Adelson, one of the world's richest men, came to public prominence during the 2012 campaign, when he and his wife Miriam donated at least $98 million to various candidates and groups. Included was $30 million for the Restore Our Future super PAC that supported Mitt Romney and $20 million to Winning Our Future, a super PAC that backed Newt Gingrich. Late in the campaign, Adelson asserted that federal investigators had targeted his company because of his political activity.

The terse statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by Las Vegas Sands noted "likely violations of the books and records and internal controls provisions of the FCPA" (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) had come to light after three independent members of the board investigated "matters" raised by a February 2011 subpoena from SEC investigators and by an ongoing Justice Department inquiry.

In a news release issued Sunday, the company said the violations it had detected related to the "accounting provisions" of the law, not its "anti-bribery provisions."

Several news organizations have examined Las Vegas Sands' efforts to build its gambling business in Asia. The Investigative Reporting Program of the University of California, PBS Frontline and ProPublica published a story last year that disclosed the role of a local lawyer/legislator in overcoming regulatory hurdles in Macau, an autonomous region of China that is home to some of the company's most lucrative casinos.

Subsequently, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal wrote detailed stories that centered on Yang Saixin, a shadowy Beijing businessman who told the Times that Las Vegas Sands had paid him $30,000 a month until his firing in 2009.

According to the Times' account, the company provided more than $70 million to companies tied to Yang to construct a trade center in Beijing and sponsor a basketball team. Several million dollars were "unaccounted for" after those projects were shut down, the Times reported.

Las Vegas Sands has declined to elaborate on its filing but did tell the SEC that "in recent years, the Company has improved its practices with respect to books and records and internal controls."