Adelson begins to play with his new toy

Once upon a time, The Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial page was a bastion of libertarianism, arguing, among other things, that public money should not be used to subsidize stadium projects.

But on Sunday, after prominent stories given to the newspaper by its new owner, the RJ has switched its position and come out in favor of public money for a new stadium being pushed by said owner, Sheldon Adelson, to possibly host the NFL Raiders. The editorial was featured on the home page of the site, right below a story leading the site about public financing for the proposal, which already has catalyzed a blizzard of negative comments.

So now there is no pretense that Adelson, who overpaid for the newspaper and tried to keep it secret, wants to use the RJ for a hobbyhorse he has been on for decades, ever since he owned a behemoth convention called COMDEX, which appeared yearly at the Las Vegas Convention Center, sparking decades of ill will between the event's proprietor and its landlord.

Whatever the merits of or chances of the city seeing the Las Vegas Raiders come to fruition, Adelson's long-held belief that the convention authority should be gutted, that room tax money should be siphoned off, that it should not compete with his facility has found a powerful outlet in the RJ's news section and editorial page.

Most people outside the Vegas insider bubble see Adelson as being ferocious in his support for Israel and, perhaps, his opposition to online gambling. But those who know also understand that he has long been passionate about the convention authority’s funding with room tax dollars, and his talks with the Raiders, which I first reported last year, his partnership with UNLV on a stadium and his new ownership of the RJ provided him with a perfect storm to finally gain the upper hand in his decades-long quest.

Reporters Howard Stutz and Rick Velotta had to report on issues related to this developing story last week, bravely maintaining their integrity by playing the stories straight but clearly knowing what was coming down. News of the stadium and its financing plan was fed to the paper by Adelson’s right-hand man, Andy Abboud, who was quoted in stories penned by Stutz on Thursday and late Saturday for Sunday's print edition.

I actually moved up the timeline of the Sands choreography by breaking the story as they were feeding it to the RJ. On the same day the RJ published its story, sports columnist Ed Graney wrote a gushing column about the Raiders moving here, without disclosure and with a sentence that bizarrely said Adelson’s corporation had invited Raiders owner Mark Davis to meet with….Adelson. (That sentence was changed and the disclosure added soon after I pointed it out.)

When Velotta wrote about MGM CEO Jim Murren’s opposition to the public financing, the paper pushed up the Adelson disclosure near the top of the story – it is usually found at the end. My guess is the reporters demanded this. And then, as if on cue, came Sunday’s editorial, which read as if it could have been written by Adelson.

The Sands folks stonewalled me on Thursday after I asked them about the memo I obtained disclosing the stadium/UNLV/Raiders plan. They obviously were planning to announce all of this in their newspaper in a few days, as the memo from UNLV President Len Jessup indicated.

I finally obtained this statement Friday from the company:

Las Vegas Sands strongly supports a state-of-the-art stadium in Las Vegas, which would attract major sporting and entertainment events as well as be the home of UNLV football.

The governor’s tourism infrastructure committee is tasked with finding ideas which will further benefit and grow our tourism economy – nothing will move that needle like a new world-class stadium. 

By the way, that committee was formed by Gov. Brian Sandoval as a compromise after Adelson tried to push through his stadium plan during the 2015 Legislature. It was seen as a way to slow the Adelson train by lobbyists for the convention authority and other gaming properties.

One savvy insider who knows the inner workings of the RJ and witnessed its coverage of the announcement, including its prominence and Graney’s column told me on Friday:

Yesterday’s multistory love-fest for the stadium/Raiders by R-J writers and columnists was not a good sign as far as objectivity goes. If they really wanted to report on it, there are so many avenues to pursue, be it the impact of road congestion on Tropicana, the FAA’s considerations, or whether anyone will seriously question whether Mark Davis is just using Las Vegas as a bargaining chip to play off of Oakland or San Diego or whomever else may be courting him.

But no, readers instead got “Las Vegas Raiders has a nice ring to it” and puffery from Adelson pal Bob Arum and the UNLV football coach.

Indeed. And why the editorial when so many questions could be raised about what any room tax money could be used for -- schools, roads, etc. -- instead of a stadium? But, no, full stadium ahead.

This is just the beginning, too, as the story indicates Adelson will have to go to the 2017 Legislature to get the financing plan approved, which means it will be an issue in campaigns this cycle.

The RJ has promised to be the most transparent paper in the country in the wake of its new ownership by a man deeply enmeshed in state and national politics and the most important industry. Last week, on the eve of the stadium stories, the new publisher ordered a daily disclosure of Adelson’s stake in the paper (that the staff had sought) removed. And what has occurred on this stadium is as transparent as anything I have seen and indicates that Adelson has just begun to play with his new toy, showing how he will use the synergy between the news pages and editorials to accomplish his agenda.