Early last month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott contradicted his core values by doing something that just didn’t make sense unless you’re one of those cynics who believes money corrupts politics. Abbott, a fan of states’ rights and a foe of casinos, did a favor for Sheldon Adelson that appears to help casinos at the expense of the Tenth Amendment. In return, Abbott got almost $100,000 in political cash. Not everyone loses at the casinos.
All this started back in 1961 with the Wire Act that banned interstate gambling. After Al Gore invented the Internet, the Justice Department interpreted the law as banning online poker until 2011, when it said the Wire Act only applied to online sports betting. And when the Justice Department changed its mind, Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands casino, lost his mind.
People playing poker online meant fewer poker players in his casinos. Thanks to the 2011 DOJ ruling, Nevada and Delaware were able to sign an interstate online poker pact, and other states reportedly expressed interest in joining. Adelson needed Congress to shut down this states’ rights online poker uprising, so he asked state attorneys general to help by signing a letter, prompting a counter-offensive by the Poker Players Alliance.
Only 15 AGs signed the letter dated Feb. 4, 2014 that warned Congress how the new Wire Act interpretation “opens the door to the spread of Internet gambling.” So far, Congress has done nothing with the letter, but then again Congress has done nothing on pretty much anything else for that matter. The only remarkable thing about the letter-which warned Congress that the states were exercising their rights-was the fact that Abbott signed it.
Abbott loves the Tenth Amendment more than my niece loves One Direction. He brags about the 29 lawsuits he filed against the federal government “to protect Texas’ sovereignty.” He calls James Madison a “visionary” for imagining the “signals of alarm that would be raised ... if a centrally empowered federal government intrudes too far into the liberties guaranteed to individuals under the Constitution and the powers delegated to the states.” And yes, this is really the way he talks.
The website for his gubernatorial campaign doesn’t have anything about education, but it’s got a whole section about the Tenth Amendment that begins, “Texas’ greatest freedom enumerated in our Constitution is the Tenth Amendment.” We can all agree that it’s more important than the Third Amendment banning soldiers from sleeping on your couch during peacetime, but this is Texas. Abbott thinks states’ rights are more important than guns. He’s obsessed.
Why a states’ rights fanboy would offer this slice of Texas sovereignty up on a silver platter-or in this case, on a fairly meaningless letter-to Congress might have an answer in, of all places, money.
Here’s the money trail: In 2011-12, the Las Vegas Sands gave the Republican State Leadership Committee (the campaign organization for down-ballot state candidates) $150,000. In that same election cycle, the RSLC gave Abbott $91,377, the second-most they gave to any candidate. The odd thing is that Abbott wasn’t even on the ballot in 2012.
Of course, it’s possible that Adelson was not incentivizing Abbott. It’s possible that Abbott hates the idea of Texans playing poker on the Internet more than he loves the Tenth Amendment. It’s possible that Adelson’s contributions to the RSLC and the RSLC’s contributions to Abbott are entirely coincidental. It’s possible the RSLC thought the best use of almost $100,000 was not to help candidates facing elections but to give it to Abbott for no particular reason. Anything is possible, even in politics where no one ever got lost following the money.
What’s more likely is that Abbott decided that compromising his most deeply held conviction was worth the price, especially with an expensive gubernatorial campaign coming up. The only risk was that he would have to explain it later, in which case he could say he was shocked, shocked that there was corruption in this casino. Either way, he comes away a winner, which is better than most people do in Vegas.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.