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January 16, 2022

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From Howard Hughes to the Adelsons: Presidential races draw big money from Las Vegas

The $10 million that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, donated to the super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich isn’t the first eye-popping sum to flow from the Las Vegas Strip to presidential campaign coffers.

From organized crime’s heyday in Las Vegas to the not-so-distant past of illegal employee bundling that got GOP nominee Bob Dole in trouble, the city has an interesting past in presidential politics.

“A lot more happened in those days than we’re aware of,” said Las Vegas historian Michael Green of the 1950s and '60s. “There was a lot of cash floating around. And what’s worth remembering is the guys on the Strip came here from other places where they had to pay off politicians to stay open. Continuing that idea to the presidential level is not out of the question.”

If the Adelsons’ contributions to the Winning Our Future PAC are notable, it’s because they were completely legal.

Here’s a look at three past attempts to influence presidential politics with cash. Not all of them ended so well.

    • Howard Hughes raises an eyebrow at cameras during a headshot taken on Oct. 3, 1947. The UNLV College of Engineering is named in his honor, despite the fact he never paid the university all of the money he promised.

      1968 Nixon vs. Humphrey

      Holed up on the ninth floor of the Desert Inn, losing his grip on sanity, scared to death of germs and reportedly unnerved by vibrations from detonations at the Nevada Test Site, Howard Hughes set out to “own a president,” according to a 2009 report by “60 Minutes.”

      His connections to Richard Nixon went way back and included a sizable business loan to Nixon’s brother. (Nixon blamed, in part, publicity surrounding that loan for his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy.)

      In a display of pragmatism, Hughes gave $100,000 to both Nixon and his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, on the hope he could persuade whoever won to end the nuclear tests in Nevada. Hughes had the $100,000 in cash delivered to Nixon’s home in an envelope, his longtime aide Bob Maheu told “60 Minutes.”

      An FBI investigation uncovered evidence that Nixon had spent $46,000 of the donation on his Key Biscayne house, including a putting green and pool table, according to “60 Minutes.”

      Nixon reportedly became so paranoid that the “bribe” would be discovered that he became obsessed with its cover-up. Some believe that obsession — in part — led to five break-ins at Democrats’ headquarters at the Watergate to search for evidence that Nixon’s rivals knew of Hughes’ $100,000.

      We all know how that ended.

    • 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon

      The Kennedy family’s ties to the mob have long been the subject of Nevada lore, stemming from the relationships between John F. Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy, and some involved in organized crime.

      In their 2001 book “The Money and the Power,” Sally Denton and Roger Morris detailed the extensive role the Las Vegas Strip and those skimming from casinos played in financing Kennedy’s presidential campaign. (The book, it should be noted, was greeted with some skepticism because of its heavy reliance on anonymous sources.)

      It was the height of the Rat Pack’s party days in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, and Kennedy reportedly loved the scene. During one such party, actor Peter Lawford pulled Sammy Davis Jr. aside to “point out a closet with a brown leather satchel bulging with $1 million in cash,” according to Denton and Morris. “It’s a gift from the hotel owners for Jack’s campaign,” the actor explained.

      The authors estimated the Strip “quietly raised what was at the time an astronomical $15 million for JFK.”

      Similar to Hughes, those skimming from the casinos generally hedged their bets and reportedly sent $500,000 Nixon’s way.

    • Former President Bill Clinton at the Paris on Oct. 12, 2010.

      1996 Clinton vs. Dole

      With the days of brown paper sacks and leather satchels (apparently) over, the owners of one of Nevada’s largest liquor distributors had to be creative in their effort to funnel money to Republican Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential campaign.

      During one of Dole’s campaign swings through Nevada, the owners of DeLuca Liquor and Wine coaxed employees to contribute to Dole’s campaign and be reimbursed by the company.

      That’s a big no-no, especially in those days with their prohibitions on giving corporate money to campaigns — which DeLuca Vice President Ray Norvell also did.

      Norvell paid a $10,000 fine to the Federal Elections Commission, and the company paid another $50,000 for the infractions.

      Norvell wasn’t the only Las Vegas businessman to illegally bundle money for Dole, who came to be known as “Vegas Bob.” Ramon Desage, the owner of a Las Vegas express delivery company, Cadeau Express, also was convicted of directing his employees to make contributions to the Dole campaign in exchange for a company reimbursement.

      The totals here don’t approach the money given to Gingrich, Kennedy or even Nixon: DeLuca and Cadeau were ultimately on the hook for only $15,000 to Dole.

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