The relationship between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and billionaire Sheldon Adelson was thrust into the spotlight this week after a New York Times report that was published Monday evening.
However, the ties between Christie, a potential presidential candidate, and Adelson, a conservative megadonor and casino mogul, are more complex than what was detailed in the article. They also raise troubling questions that top New Jersey Democrats say show the governor’s administration is “ethically challenged” and “out of control.”
‘These are not friends by any reasonable definition.’
The Times article detailed Christie’s penchant for luxury hotels and travel on private jets loaned by wealthy benefactors including a 2012 trip to the Middle East he took on Adelson’s plane. The story said the governor’s trips sometimes “put him in ethically questionable situations” where he accepted gifts from people who were doing business in New Jersey. According to the paper, one of these instances was the trip with Adelson.
The Times noted Adelson opposed a New Jersey bill signed into law by Christie in 2013 that allowed online gambling in the state. But the state has specific laws limiting the government’s interactions with those in the casino business, and Adelson’s interests in Jersey go beyond that bill. Furthermore, Adelson has given Christie more than a free flight: The billionaire has given millions to a GOP fundraising organisation headed by the governor.
Christie’s office has defended his acceptance of private flights and other gifts from wealthy individuals by saying the governor “may accept gifts, favours, services, gratuities, meals, lodging or travel expenses from relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds.” Maria Comella, a spokesperson for the governor, also told the Times Adelson “had not been personally lobbying the governor against the online gambling bill.”
In spite of these denials, Adelson has described discussing the bill directly with Christie. Adelson gave an interview to Bloomberg TV in 2013 a few months after the bill passed. In that broadcast Adelson described his conversations with Christie about the legislation. The billionaire said Christie claimed he couldn’t stop the bill as the Legislature would have overridden his veto.
“I talk to him. He said he was about to be overridden anyway. He said it was about to be overridden or over-vetoed or whatever you call it. I like Governor Christie,” Adelson said.
Neither Christie’s office nor Adelson responded to requests for comment on this story.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) is a frequent critic of Christie and one of the co-chairs of the special legislative committee investigating abuses of power in his administration following the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal. In a conversation with Business Insider on Tuesday, Weinberg scoffed at the idea Adelson wasn’t attempting to influence the governor in their conversations about the bill.
“Somebody who’s letting a politician fly around on their private jet is not someone who’s just interested in good government,” Weinberg said.
In addition to Adelson, the Times article noted Christie has accepted flights and gifts from others including lavish accommodations and parties thrown by King Abdullah of Jordan. Christie has also accepted flights and football tickets from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is an investor in a real estate project overseen by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which is partially overseen by the governor. Weinberg rejected the administration’s argument these are acceptable gifts from personal friends.
“They’re justifying this by saying the rules allow him to accept gifts from personal friends. You know who your friends are,” she said. “These are not friends by any reasonable definition. I doubt King Abdullah or Jerry Jones would have any idea who Christie is if he wasn’t a governor of New Jersey who’s about to run for president.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) is another Christie critic and co-chair of the special committee investigating the administration. He told Business Insider Comella’s claim that Adelson was not lobbying Christie strained credulity.
Along with the fact Adelson flew Christie on his plane and claims to have discussed the bill with the governor, Wisniewski cited Adelson’s status as one of the GOP’s most influential donors.
“This administration, you know, exemplified by the statements made by Maria Comella, they remind me of the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where she said, ‘I can make words mean whatever I want them to be,'” said Wisniewski. “So, she said, of course they talked, but they weren’t lobbying. Really? A multibillionaire who can make or kill a presidential campaign and that didn’t influence you.”
Still, based on the statements made by Adelson, Wisniewski noted Christie might technically be able to defend their conversations about the bill using a “loophole.”
“In a very broad sense, I think that the administration is going to argue that they were discussing the status of the bill as opposed to advocacy for it,” explained Wisniewski. “That’s going to be his loophole, so to speak.”
Wisniewski also argued that, even if the discussion between Adelson and Christie couldn’t be “technically” classified as lobbying based on the available information, it still “looks horrible.”
“Maybe technically this wasn’t lobbying, but man, it looks horrible and it raises the question that everyone suspects as the worst instincts of anyone in government, that they are getting something that nobody else can get,” Wisniewski said.
‘A heck of a bribe if it didn’t work’
Wisniewski also pointed out there are less direct ways for a megadonor like Adelson to help Christie than giving him a lift on a private plane.
“The coin of the realm is contributions and where those contributions go in many respects is fungible,” said Wisniewski.”So, if you’re funding the Republican Governors Association, if you’re funding an exploratory committee, that is lobbying by another name.”
Indeed, Adelson has given millions to the RGA, which was chaired by Christie up until last November. Records show Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., donated over $US3,5 million to the organisation during Christie’s tenure. The RGA is focused on promoting GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates.
RGA donations are clearly crucial to Christie as he considers launching a 2016 campaign. The organisation had record fundraising under Christie, a fact that media cited as an indication he was bouncing back from “Bridgegate.” The governor’s allies have also pointed to his success at the RGA as evidence he should be taken seriously as a presidential candidate.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R) disagreed with his Democratic colleagues that Adelson’s largesse to Christie could be seen as a clear attempt to influence the governor on online gambling.
Carroll pointed out Adelson’s interests go far beyond the New Jersey online gambling bill. Christie’s 2012 flight on Adelson’s plane took him to Israel and the billionaire is heavily focused on Israel policy.
“I think Adelson’s got interests other than his casino interests and I think Israel’s one of them ,” said Carroll.
Carroll also noted that the bill, which Adelson opposed, was eventually signed into law by Christie in spite of the flight.
“It was a heck of a bribe if it didn’t work,” he quipped.
But the online gambling bill isn’t Adelson’s only concern in New Jersey.
Adelson has openly discussed his desire to open a casino in the Meadowlands swamps, which are located in the northern part of the state. In a keynote speech at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas last October, Adelson described the area as a “very attractive place to build” due to its proximity to New York City.
The New Jersey Constitution prohibits casinos outside of Atlantic City, which is at the southern end of the state. But the idea of a constitutional amendment that would allow casinos elsewhere in New Jersey has the support of several local lawmakers and has been gaining steam of late, particularly in light of Atlantic City’s recent financial woes.
Technically, Christie wouldn’t have control over a constitutional amendment. Passing a constitutional amendment in New Jersey first requires a vote in the Legislature. If the amendment is approved by a super majority or a simple majority two years in a row, it is then put on the ballot for the state’s residents to vote on. But Wisniewski argued Christie’s influence over New Jersey’s GOP means he would hold substantial weight in any debate over a potential amendment.
“He would technically have no legislative role because, as we all know, he has absolutely no connection to the 32 Republicans in the State Assembly,” Wisniewski said, sarcastically.
Last year, Christie said the possibility of casinos in North Jersey was “on the table.”
Adelson’s interest in a Meadowlands casino further complicates his interactions with Christie.
New Jersey conflicts of interest law places several special restrictions on interactions between officials and people in the casino business. Specifically, the governor is barred from taking any “complimentary service or discount” from someone who has a casino licence in New Jersey or is applying for one.
The relevant portion of the law says this:
“No person shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any complimentary service or discount from any casino applicant or licensee which he knows or has reason to know is other than a service or discount that is offered to mem-bers of the general public in like circumstance.”
And the law specifies that, in this case, the word “person” refers to several types of officials including “the Governor.”
Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., do not have casino licenses in New Jersey. Under the current rules, he would not need to apply for one unless he was interested in setting up shop in Atlantic City, a market he has long avoided. This means Christie isn’t legally prohibited from taking gifts from Adelson.
However, Wisniewski described Christie’s acceptance of a flight from Adelson as “a letter of the law skate” and “a spirit of the law curiosity” given the billionaire’s expressed interest in the Meadowlands.
“If you were to go to court, my guess is the governor would be found to have not violated the letter of the law because Mr. Adelson has not applied to have a licence or is not a licence holder,” Wisniewski explained. “But he is somebody who has talked wistfully about having a casino in North Jersey.”
Overall, Wisniewski said Adelson’s relationship with Christie is proof there are widespread issues in the governor’s administration. Specifically, he argued the governor’s apparent reliance on legal technicalities to justify questionable behaviour is a sign of problems.
“It may not be a specific violation, but it’s one bad appearance, after another bad appearance, after another bad appearance,” said Wisniewski. “This is an ethically challenged administration.”
Weinberg was more blunt in her assessment of Christie’s interactions with Adelson.
“He’s like an out of control adolescent,” she said of the governor. “He has no boundaries.”
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