(The New Republic) In 2008, Sen. John McCain returned $50,000 when questions arose about how its donor had scored a defense contract. In February, President Obama returned more than $200,000 donated by several men linked to drug and assassination allegations in Mexico. These decisions reflected the basic calculation that it is worth more, politically, not to be tainted by questionable funds than to have the money to spend. Given the comparatively paltry sums, they were no-brainers.
But what about when many, many millions of dollars are at stake? What about when the donor is Sheldon Adelson, and he has given or pledged to give more than $70 million (!) to Republican groups this cycle? When he was put front-and-center at Mitt Romney's speech in Jerusalem, and when Rep. Paul Ryan is headed to a fundraiser at the Adelson-owned Venetian three days after being announced as the vice-presidential nominee? What happens when a donor is, in effect, too big to fail? (Disclosure: I totally lost some money at the Venetian's blackjack tables three years ago. It's not the source of my agitation.)
The Las Vegas-based multibillionaire casino magnate has exploited the breakdowns in campaign-finance law following the Citizens United decision to become the most influential political donor in the United States -- he basically single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich's primary candidacy afloat through January by giving a supportive SuperPAC more than $15 million -- even as more revelations about the questionable ways in which he amassed his fortune have trickled out.
The classic of the genre was Connie Bruck's 2008 New Yorker profile, which rehashed Adelson's run-ins with the Culinary Union in Nevada and businessmen in Macao, the Chinese island-territory where Adelson has made the vast majority of his riches over the past decade. Bruck reported that Adelson had used political connections (to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay) to quash a resolution condemning Chinese human rights abuses at the same time that he was hoping for favorable treatment when China lifted a monopoly on gambling in Macao. In 2010, a former employee's lawsuit alleged that Adelson at the least passively accepted the involvement of organized crime in his casinos and effectively hired a Macau legislator. A new New York Times story refers to a Chinese businessman's allegation that Adelson's Sands company used him as a front to purchase real estate in Beijing and engaged in "blackmail and bribery" to buy a Chinese basketball team in a similar fashion. Reportedly, both Chinese and U.S. authorities are investigating.
I do not know whether any of these allegations are true, and I'm not going to say they are: partly because I really don't know, partly because I don't want Adelson to sue me, as he has the National Jewish Democratic Council, which cited a report that he had "personally approved" of prostitution at his Macau properties. Adelson's company denies all of these charges.
But the mere possibility that Adelson could be tied to, say, unsavory business practices points to yet another problem with one man giving so much money. (I say "another" because we already have the evidence, from the DeLay episode, that Adelson may be willing to use his political pull to advance his business interests. And we have the fact that his fortune's source means "foreign money," to quote John McCain, is entering the political system.) What if Adelson's company is more definitively tied to the triads, the groups of Chinese organized crime? What if a Sands employee is indicted under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? Even those who agree with Adelson's politics must admit these are plausible scenarios. In accepting so much money from Adelson -- $10 million to a Romney-affiliated SuperPAC, and $35 million pledged to groups tied, respectively, to Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor -- the Republican establishment has put itself in a position where almost nothing could make it return the money. There's just too much of it!
Such a decision would be analogous to Obama's reneging in 2008 on a pledge to accept public financing for his campaign. In both cases, the candidate determines that an amount of money is big enough to justify a political hit. The similarity evaporates in the face of the staggering ethical discrepancy, particularly should, for example, any serious criminal charges be filed. No matter how many times Romney claimed he has nothing to do with Adelson because the SuperPACs are separate -- and, again, consult Adelson and his wife Miriam's seats directly next to Romney at a Jerusalem fundraiser -- the country would have a president tremendously indebted to a man with both business interests and, potentially, legal actions before the federal government.
I don't blame Adelson, who hasn't broken any laws with his donations. I blame Romney for allowing a too-big-to-fail donor, even to groups over which he ostensibly exerts no control. A simple, "With all due respect, I don't want any couple other than Ann and myself to have so much responsibility for my election," would suffice. I'd expect it from Obama, because he is president; I expect it from someone running for president, too.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.