MANHATTAN (CN) – A Jewish organization behind an online petition accusing Sheldon Adelson of allowing prostitution in his Macau casinos did not defame the billionaire mogul, the Second Circuit ruled Wednesday.
In 2012, the National Jewish Democratic Council filed an online petition urging then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to reject Adelson’s financial contributions, calling the money “dirty” due to Adelson’s alleged approval of prostitution in Chinese casinos and insinuating that the mogul was “putting ‘foreign money’ from China in our elections.”
The group cited an Associated Press story, which described sworn declarations by an ex-employee that Adelson had personally approved of prostitution.
Adelson has vehemently denied the claims, calling them a “blatant and reprehensible attack.” He sued the group for defamation in August 2012, seeking $60 million in damages.
On Wednesday, the Second Circuit found that the National Jewish Democratic Council – as well as Chairman Marc Stanley and CEO David Harris – did not violate anti-defamation laws because the petition appeared sincere and included hyperlinks to prove its veracity.
Answering questions referred to it by the Second Circuit, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled unanimously in September that Nevada law grants “absolute immunity” to speech seeking to influence an election, even if it is not addressed to a government agency.
The anti-SLAPP law – which stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation – is designed to curb frivolous lawsuits aimed at media outlets or other organizations exercising free speech.
The Nevada Supreme Court ruling also found that a hyperlink in the Jewish organization’s petition that linked to the AP story acted as a footnote, allowing viewers to verify the petition’s claims.
Before that, a federal judge in Manhattan dismissed Adelson’s lawsuit in 2013, finding that the petition was protected by the fair-report privilege.
Wednesday’s Second Circuit ruling, issued per curiam, agreed with both lower courts, finding that the council had acted in good faith when it published the petition.
Adelson “failed to allege ‘the knowledge of falsity, much less facts to support such a conclusion,’” the six-page ruling states.
Adelson – who is ranked by Forbes as the 20th richest person in the world – owns the Venetian and Palazzo casinos in Las Vegas, as well as various other casinos worldwide, including in China’s Macau region. He is also considered a major contributor to the Republican Party.
News reports in 2012 stated that prostitution occurred at the Sands China casino in Macau with Adelson’s knowledge and blessing, based on testimony from Sands CEO Steven Jacobs in a wrongful termination case.
According to Jacobs’ 2010 lawsuit, Adelson had personally approved a so-called “prostitution strategy” at the casino as a way to draw gamblers. The lawsuit also alleged fraudulent work permits, bribery and connections with local triad gang members.
Adelson, who took the stand in 2015 to fight the allegations, claims he has not done business with gang leader Cheung Chi Tai, despite statements by other employees that the casino had at one time done business with triad members but had broken off relationships due to “adverse publicity.”
Stanley and Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council have stated they stand behind everything in the 2012 petition, noting that it was sourced by credible news organizations and Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain had made similar allegations about Adelson.
A similar petition on MoveOn.org calls for the Justice Department to arrest Adelson for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act based on the allegations about his Macau casino.
Adelson’s attorney, James Ferguson at Mayer Brown in Chicago, did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment on the Second Circuit ruling.
U.S. Circuit Judges Guido Calabresi, Reena Raggi and Denny Chin delivered the New York-based appeals court’s unsigned opinion.