Casino Mogul’s Frontman in China Is Focus of Inquiries
BEIJING — When Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, needed something done in China, he often turned to his company’s “chief Beijing representative,” a mysterious businessman named Yang Saixin.
Mr. Yang arranged meetings for Mr. Adelson with senior Chinese officials, acted as a frontman on several ambitious projects for Mr. Adelson’s company, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation , and intervened on the Sands’s behalf with Chinese regulators. Mr. Yang even had his daughter take Mr. Adelson’s wife, Miriam, shopping when she was in Beijing.
“Adelson and I had a good relationship,” Mr. Yang said in a recent interview in Hong Kong. “He should thank me.”
Mr. Yang joined the Sands in 2007 as the company worked to protect its interests in Macau, where its gambling revenues were mushrooming, and pressed ahead with plans for a resort in mainland China. Boasting of ties to the People’s Liberation Army and China’s state security apparatus, Mr. Yang was hired for his guanxi, that mixture of relationships and favors that is critical to opening doors in China, according to former executives.
But today, Mr. Yang, along with tens of millions of dollars in payments the Sands made through him in China, is a focus of a wide-ranging federal investigation into potential bribery of foreign officials and other matters in China and Macau, according to people with knowledge of the inquiries.
The investigations are unfolding as Mr. Adelson has become an increasing presence in this year’s presidential election, contributing at least $35 million to Republican groups. On Tuesday, Mitt Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, is to appear at a fund-raiser at the Sands’s Venetian casino in Las Vegas; Mr. Adelson is likely to attend, according to a person close to him.
In the political arena, Mr. Adelson is perhaps best known as a hawkish defender of Israel. But whatever the outcome of the inquiries involving his businesses in China, an examination of those activities suggests a keen interest in Washington’s China policy and highlights the degree to which politics and profits are often intertwined for Mr. Adelson.
The Sands has faced a conundrum in China as a casino company whose fortunes are heavily dependent on its operations in a country where gambling is illegal, except in Macau. The company relies on the good will of Chinese officials, who mete out approvals and have the power to curtail the flow of mainland visitors. As a result, Mr. Adelson has sought to use financial clout and connections to exert political influence at the highest levels of government.
On the front lines of those efforts was Mr. Yang, who was paid a $30,000-a-month retainer by the company before he was fired in 2009, he said. At times, he acted as Mr. Adelson’s personal guide to the Chinese establishment. Among the dignitaries he took Mr. Adelson to see was Wan Jifei, a leading international trade official whose father had been vice premier. That led to a lunch with other trade officials at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.
The Sands later hired Mr. Wan’s daughter, Bao Bao, a socialite and jewelry designer, to do public relations. And the trade agency Mr. Wan ran became a partner in the Sands’s biggest venture, the Adelson Center for U.S.-China Enterprise.
Mr. Yang denies resorting to bribery and says he actually lost money on his dealings with the Sands.
“I’m really being bullied because I helped Venetian and Adelson do so many things,” he said. “I’m in the middle, and on both sides everybody’s pointing at me.”
The broad outlines of the mainland China investigation were reported last week by The Wall Street Journal. But a review of more than a thousand pages of corporate records in China, as well as interviews with former Sands executives and others, provides a more detailed picture.
The documents show that the Sands paid out more than $70 million to companies tied to Mr. Yang for the trade center and for a Chinese basketball team the Sands sponsored. But several million dollars appear to be unaccounted for after the projects were suddenly shut down by the company, The New York Times found.
What became of any missing money and whether any of it wound up in the hands of Chinese officials are among the questions being examined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Compounding the Sands’s legal headaches in China, several of the company’s subsidiaries came under investigation by Chinese regulators, resulting in a $1.6 million fine, according to Chinese corporate records. Mr. Yang said the penalty might have been much higher, but he “coordinated the matter” with the agency.
Federal investigators began looking into the Sands’s China activities after the former president of the company’s Macau operations filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit in 2010. The former executive, Steven C. Jacobs, charged, among other things, that he had been pressured to exercise improper leverage against government officials in Macau, and that the company had turned a blind eye to Chinese organized crime figures operating in its casinos. (The Jacobs lawsuit raised questions about payments to another well-connected local figure — a lawyer and legislator in Macau — that were recently explored by ProPublica and are also part of the federal bribery investigation.)
The Sands declined to respond to a detailed list of questions provided by The Times more than a week ago, saying in a statement that it was cooperating with the inquiries and was confident that once they were concluded “no current member of senior management will have been found to have been involved in wrongdoing.”
'Vegas of the Far East'
In mid-2000, Richard Suen, a Hong Kong businessman, met with Mr. Adelson in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong to relay some urgent news. China, which had recently assumed control of Macau — the former Portuguese colony across from Hong Kong on the south China coast — was ending the gambling monopoly of the local tycoon Stanley Ho and would be taking bids for a limited number of gambling licenses.