Sands' luck tested as huge suit goes before US court

Hong Kong businessman claims casino operator cheated him out of dues for helping it win Macau licence

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 April, 2013, 3:35am

Las Vegas Sands, the casino operator controlled by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, faces as much as US$328 million in damage claims at a trial over who helped it win its Macau gaming licence.

Opening statements were scheduled yesterday in Las Vegas in a second trial over Hong Kong businessman Richard Suen's allegations that Sands breached a 2001 agreement to pay him and his associates US$5 million and 2 per cent of the net income from the firm's Macau casinos if it was awarded a permit.

Suen says meetings he arranged between Adelson and Chinese officials in Beijing were instrumental in leading Edmund Ho, the former chief executive of Macau, to award the firm a gaming licence in 2002.

According to Suen, Ho initially expressed misgivings about Sands' large-scale plans.

"The jury can and should conclude that Macau's chief executive was influenced to change his approach in deference to the Beijing central government," Suen's lawyers said in a March 22 pretrial filing.

In 2010, a US court of appeals reversed a US$43.8 million award by a jury two years earlier in favour of Suen and sent the case back for a new trial. The appellate court found the judge presiding over the previous trial had incorrectly allowed hearsay evidence linking the meetings in Beijing with the award of the gaming licence.

Sands has faced other claims by middlemen or former partners who says they helped it win the concession in Macau. Through Sands China, the firm operates four casino resorts in the gambling hub.

The company agreed in 2009 to pay US$42.5 million to three men who said that they helped set up a partnership between Las Vegas Sands and a Hong Kong-based group with which the casino operator originally gained a licence.

Sands also faces a lawsuit seeking as much as US$376 million in Macau by Asian American Entertainment, a Taiwanese-backed venture with which the firm was pursuing a licence before it teamed up with the Hong Kong group.

Suen is seeking about US$98 million in past damages and US$230 million in future damages based on Sands' profit from its Macau casino resorts.

Sands has argued the meetings Suen helped arrange with Chinese officials in Beijing were not instrumental to the Macau government's decision to award it a licence and that the region's special status precludes the central government from dictating who would be awarded a licence.

The firm has said in court filings that it obtained the Macau licence after it took the suggestion of the local government and joined the bid by Galaxy Entertainment, backed by two "prominent and wealthy Hong Kong families" who had the wherewithal to invest in Macau and lacked casino expertise.

Wynn Resorts, billionaire Stanley Ho's company SJM and the Galaxy/Las Vegas Sands group were each awarded casino concessions by the Macau government in 2002. Sands got a sub-concession from Galaxy to build its own casinos in Macau.