HONG KONG – The right-wing US advocacy group Freedom’s Watch is reportedly shutting down as its main funder, Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, becomes one of the high-profile casualties of the global economic downturn.
Freedom’s Watch, which according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, has scheduled huge staff layoffs for the end of December, was one of the most prominent advocacy groups aligned with the Republican Party.
Adelson contributed over 30 million dollars to Freedom’s Watch in 2007 and 2008, but has had to cut back on his philanthropy as his net worth estimated at 36 billion dollars in 2007 shrunk by 13 billion dollars.
His company the Las Vegas Sands Corporation faces huge losses as its aggressive expansion in Singapore and Macau coincided with the global financial crisis.
Freedom’s Watch was conceived in March 2007 as an offshoot of the Florida Republican Jewish Coalition in which Adelson is a longtime member.
The stated mission of Freedom’s Watch has been to “support mainstream conservative public policies” but the focus of the group’s lobbying and media campaigns has reflected the staunchly pro-Iraq war and pro-Israeli-Likud Party politics of its chief benefactor.
In November 2007, Adelson placed himself to the far right of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), when he denounced the organization’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“If someone is going to jump off a bridge, it is incumbent upon their friends to dissuade them,” he told the Jewish Telegraph Agency. “I don’t continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they say they want to jump.”
Freedom’s Watch spent 15 million dollars on an ad blitz in the summer of 2007 supporting the George W. Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq, and the group bought both print ads and television time, in four Senate and over 30 House races in the Nov. 4 election.
But recent reports have suggested that Adelson’s grip on the group’s purse-strings and his need to authorize and approve every media campaign and expenditure have led Freedom’s Watch board members and top Republican party operatives to express frustration with his top-down management style.
The global economic downturn and the rapid expansion of Adelson’s casino empire in Asia has coincided with a split between Adelson and Christian evangelicals who had aligned themselves with the neoconservative foreign policy interests promoted by Freedom’s Watch.
Tensions between the Christian right and Adelson’s business interests boiled over on Sep. 29 when the Christian Coalition of Alabama’s president, Dr. Randy Brinson, denounced Adelson as “not sharing our values as Alabamans.”
Adelson’s casino interests in Macau, a Chinese gambling enclave near Hong Kong, has called attention to his expanding casino empire and his backroom politicking on behalf of the Chinese government who the Christian right are quick to point criticism at for its human rights violations, restrictions on religion and the government’s communist identity.
On May 25, 2008 a Las Vegas, Nevada jury awarded Richard Suen a Hong Kong businessman 43.8 million dollars in damages against the Sands Corporation. The judgment was the conclusion of Suen’s lawsuit which claimed he had served as a “fixer” for Adelson and the Sands Corp. in arranging meetings with high-level Chinese government officials in Beijing.
Suen’s version of events is that Adelson and the Sands Corp. had been seeking a casino license to enter the lucrative gambling market in Macau. In meetings, arranged by Suen in 2001, Adelson learned that Beijing was concerned about an effort led by US House Republicans to stop China from winning their 2008 Olympic bid.
Testimony given by Suen revealed that Adelson, eager to curry favor with Beijing, immediately phoned then House Majority Whip Tom Delay and, after getting off the phone with DeLay, reportedly turned to the mayor of Beijing and said, “The bill will never see the light of day, Mr. Mayor. Don’t worry about it.”
Sands Corp. received the lucrative casino license and has since opened the Cotai Strip development and the Venetian Macau at a cost of 2.4 billion dollars and an estimated 10 to 12 billion dollars in costs by 2010.
The close relationship between Adelson and the Chinese government damaged Adelson’s alliances with the Christian Right a powerful constituency within the Republican Party.
“Where Sheldon Adelson has placed his treasure makes it quite clear where his heart is: in gambling and backing the regime in China that persecutes Christians,” said Brinson.
Adelson’s shrinking fortune has also meant huge cutbacks in his other high-profile philanthropic venture Birth Right Israel which sends young Jews on all-expense paid trips to Israel.
With his wife Miriam, Adelson contributed 70 million dollars over the past two years but his pledged contributions for 2009 and 2010 have been reduced to 20 million and 10 million dollars, respectively.
The combination of the global financial crisis, increased media attention on his business dealings in China, and a split between Christian evangelicals and Freedom’s Watch has marked a particularly inauspicious year for a man who in 2006 ruefully commented to the interviewer Charlie Rose, “A billion dollars doesn’t buy what it used to.”