Vegas newspaper staffers reject claims that Wynn story was a hit piece

To Las Vegas insiders, it was an immediate source of palace intrigue: another damaging headline for Steve Wynn in a n...

Posted: Feb. 7, 2018 9:10 AM
Updated: Feb. 7, 2018 9:10 AM

To Las Vegas insiders, it was an immediate source of palace intrigue: another damaging headline for Steve Wynn in a newspaper owned by an on-again-off-again rival, fellow billionaire casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson.

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But to the journalists of the Las Vegas Review-Journal -- a proud staff that weathered Adelson's tumultuous takeover of the paper a little more than two years ago -- the mere suggestion that the story was a hit piece commissioned by Adelson is "deeply offensive."

That's how Review-Journal managing editor Glenn Cook described it when he was asked about the speculation regarding the paper's incredible move on Monday -- admitting that it spiked a story 20 years ago detailing sexual misconduct allegations against Wynn, but was now publishing some details of the allegations. The report included previously undisclosed court records and interviews alleging that, thirty years ago, Wynn pressured a waitress at one of his casinos into sex. The new revelation comes as Wynn is fighting similar allegations first revealed last month in an investigation by the Wall Street Journal.

Adelson had no advance warning of the story, Cook insisted.

"He knew this story was coming when it landed on his driveway this morning," Cook said. "There's no communication with ownership on this story. One of the things that frustrates me about any assertion that we did this story because of some interest in our owner."

A representative for Adelson echoed this, telling CNNMoney on Monday that "Mr. Adelson had nothing to do with the story, was unaware it was being published and hasn't read it."

On the Review-Journal's front page Monday, the story revealed that, in 1998, the paper killed a story by Carri Geer Thevenot on sexual harassment allegations against Wynn from his employees.

Geer Thevenot, who is now the paper's metro editor, saved her notes and records of the story. When the WSJ published its investigation into allegations against Wynn last month, Geer Thevenot said she immediately thought of the file, which she had intermittently come across over the years.

Geer Thevenot said she doesn't know why she didn't think of her own reporting prior to the Journal's story even as other publications were publishing explosive allegations against other powerful men in media, Hollywood and the business world. She also said she's not sure why the paper decided not to run the original piece in 1998, since it often published allegations from court cases, such as those in the killed story about Wynn. But she said that in this case, at the time, she had been told unequivocally to delete the story.

"I always believed it was fear of litigation," Geer Thevenot told CNNMoney in an interview on Monday.

Geer Thevenot said she has never spoken directly with Adelson.

"I'm sorry that they are drawing that conclusion," she said in reference to the speculation swirling around Monday's story. "It never crossed my mind. Anyone who was in the newsroom that morning can say I read the Wall Street Journal story, remembered I had the file and brought it up to the editor in chief."

It was a remarkable piece of journalistic self-accounting, a recognition by the paper it had insight on Wynn long before the Journal.

Sheldon Adelson bought the Review-Journal in 2015 in a highly secretive transaction that distressed the newsroom. The reporters there eventually dug in, and uncovered that Adelson had taken over as the new owner.

The three reporters on the story of Adelson's ownership of the paper all eventually left, part of an exodus that included several other reporters and editors who cited what they believed was a lack of editorial freedom under their new owner. News reports citing those in the newsroom at the time said stories involving Adelson, who is a power broker in the Las Vegas gaming industry and a top GOP donor, were being "reviewed, changed or killed almost daily."

When the Review-Journal story on Wynn surfaced Monday, some reporters who covered the gaming business in Vegas wondered openly whether Adelson had exerted editorial control over the paper in order to damage his rival.

Wynn and Adelson have had a tumultuous relationship over the last 20 years. Two billionaire casino magnates, their careers have long intersected: Wynn opened the Bellagio in 1998, Adelson opened the Venetian the following year. And while their business interests have at times clashed, two former Review-Journal staffers who have long covered Vegas politics and business say the two moguls have bonded over a mutual support for conservative causes and the Republican Party.

Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada reporter who worked at the Review-Journal in the early 1990s and now runs his own site, The Nevada Independent, couldn't help but wonder if the on-and-off-again relationship between Adelson and Wynn had something to do with the story.

"The question is is this just principal journalism, or is there a fraying in the relationship," Ralston said.

But others see Adelson's fingerprints.

Steve Friess, a freelance journalist who covered the Vegas gaming industry for more than a decade and who worked at the Review-Journal for three years in the 1990s, told CNNMoney that he finds it hard to believe Adelson did not know the story was coming. Friess has interviewed the two casino moguls multiple times during his career, he said.

Friess said he thinks that "somebody talked to somebody talked to somebody."

Another former longtime staffer of the Review-Journal said that, while there is no "hotline into the newsroom," he thinks that Adelson could have killed Monday's story if he "wanted to do Wynn a favor."

For Adelson, the scandal around Wynn might ultimately spell the demise of one of his biggest competitors.

Wynn has denied the allegations levied against him, responding to the Wall Street Journal story by saying in part, "The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous." But the story has left Wynn's career and reputation in tatters. He resigned as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, and shares of Wynn Resorts tumbled after the WSJ broke the news.

"The king is dying, and Adelson knows it," Friess said. "Once Steve Wynn is gone, Sheldon Adelson is the king. There's nobody singular like that in Vegas after him."

In a 2006 interview on Friess' former podcast, The Strip, Adelson didn't mince words.

"Do I like Steve Wynn? No," Adelson said. "I'll tell you that right up front. His standard of principles are somewhat different than our standard of principles."

Adelson added that he didn't approve of "the way [Wynn] practices his business and life and interpersonal relationships."

Their relationship continued to fluctuate through the years, but Adelson's resentment toward Wynn likely goes deeper than their business dealings. Friess said he believes Adelson has long been bitter that Wynn received more credit for Las Vegas' revitalization. And the two have never been exactly simpatico.

"Sheldon and Steve have always had very different lifestyles," Friess said. "Sheldon is very religious, very serious about his Judaism. Steve always has been a flashy playboy, very much like Donald Trump."

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