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NJDC defiant on Adelson lawsuit (but who knows what happened in Macau?)

The National Jewish Democratic Council isn’t apologizing to Sheldon Adelson. Instead, the NJDC is ridiculing the gambling tycoon’s lawsuit against it.

In an Op-Ed published yesterday in the Forward, the NJDC’s chairman, Marc Stanley — one of two NJDC officials named along with their organization as defendants in the suit — comes out swinging at Adelson:

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…drop your silly lawsuit — you are going to lose and you are not going to bully us or silence us because of your wealth. Thankfully we live in a country that protects our ability to speak freely through our rights under the First Amendment.

Interestingly, the Op-Ed itself does not repeat the allegation against Adelson that is at the center of the lawsuit. (It is instead explained in an “editor’s note” prefacing the Op-Ed.)

So here’s the background in brief: The NJDC sent out a mass email to supporters touting an NJDC petition calling on Mitt Romney and Republican Party to refuse the casino tycoon’s money. The email said that “reports surfaced that in addition to his anti-union and allegedly corrupt business practices, Adelson ‘personally approved’ of prostitution in his Macau casinos.” An accompanying graphic stated: “If one of your biggest donors was accused of putting ‘foreign money’ from China in our elections & reportedly approved of prostitution, would you take his money?”

Adelson demanded an apology and retraction, and the NJDC wouldn’t give him one. So he sued.

Adelson’s lawsuit argues that the statement that he approved of prostitution is false and defamatory.

NJDC’s defense is that it was simply citing media reports. “Regarding our recent campaign surrounding Sheldon Adelson, we don’t believe we engaged in character assassination; we stand by everything we said, which was sourced from current, credible news accounts,” the group said in a statement issued prior to the lawsuit.

But the original news account in question — which came from the Associated Press — doesn’t itself allege that Adelson approved of prostitution. Instead, the article simply cites an assertion made by a former executive at Adelson’s casino company, Steven Jacobs. The article also notes the denial by Adelson’s company attorney of this charge.

Here’s what the original A.P. article reported regarding Jacobs’ allegations:

In documents revealed Thursday — including a sworn seven-page declaration that Jacobs submitted along with a summary from his attorneys of problems obtaining documents from Sands — Jacobs describes an effort he launched after arriving in Macau in May 2009 to rid the casino floor of "loan sharks and prostitution."

"This project was met with concern as (company) senior executives informed me that the prior prostitution strategy had been personally approved by Adelson," Jacobs said in the documents.

In its original anti-Adelson blast, the NJDC seemed to be giving credence to the notion that Jacobs was telling the truth and dismissing Adelson’s company attorney’s denial. On what basis did the NJDC do this?

Did the NJDC have some reason to believe that Jacobs’ allegations were correct? (Conversely, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — under pressure from Adelson — publicly retracted its own earlier attack on Adelson on this issue, calling its previous statements “untrue and unfair,” did the DCCC really have firm knowledge that its previous allegations were false? Or did the group just want the threat of legal action to go away?)

Fortunately for the NJDC, public figures can have a hard time winning libel judgements. Indeed, the Forward spoke with a couple of legal experts who didn’t seem to think Adelson has the best odds (based on how the lawsuit was explained to them by the paper’s reporter).

On the other hand, The Atlantic Wire’s Adam Martin notes some useful distinctions (though I can’t vouch for his interpretation of libel law):

Under U.S. libel law, it’s one thing for a complainant to make that accusation in a lawsuit, which Adelson is fighting in court, and for news organizations to report fact the accusation was made, which they’ve done along with Adelson’s denial. But it’s a different thing entirely for an organization such as NJDC to use the as-yet unproven allegation in a referendum on Adelson’s character, and that’s what Adelson is using as the basis for his suit.

While the lawsuit’s outcome remains to be seen, what is clear is that nobody should be surprised that Adelson would threaten to sue and then follow through. An in-depth 2008 New Yorker profile reported that Adelson has not been shy about taking legal action to defend his reputation.

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