Columnist pursues bankruptcy protection

John L. Smith, the Review-Journal’s most widely read columnist, has filed for bankruptcy after a two-year legal battle with Sheldon Adelson, owner of The Venetian resort.

Adelson is suing Smith and his book publisher, Barricade Books, and alleging libel based upon Smith’s 2005 book "Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas." The Review-Journal was not named in the lawsuit.

"My family managed to survive childhood cancer and all the medical bills that go with it," said Smith, 47. "But how do you fade the sixth-richest man in the world?"

Smith took the step Wednesday after negotiations broke down for a settlement agreement.

"We had every reason to believe this case was going to settlement and were led along with false promises," Smith said. "When it became obvious they didn’t intend to settle, we were caught unprepared to go to trial." The bankruptcy will stay the libel lawsuit long enough to prepare and perhaps pay for a defense, Smith said.

The trial was scheduled to start Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court. Martin Singer, the lawyer representing Adelson, said the case has been continued to Feb. 4 because of the bankruptcy petition.

Smith’s initial petition said he has assets of $425,400 and liabilities of $15,644,671, including a $15 million potential judgment against him by Adelson.

When the Review-Journal tried to reach Adelson for comment, he released a statement through Singer on Thursday: "We engaged in settlement negotiations with Mr. Smith in good faith. At the start of the negotiations we asked for $1 and an apology. Separate and apart from that we offered to establish a $200,000 medical fund for Mr. Smith’s daughter, whose condition Mr. Adelson learned about during the case. Mr. Smith turned down the trust and would not pay the dollar. It is incredible that in filing for bankruptcy Mr. Smith valued this case at $15 million. Obviously he knows something about his own conduct that we don’t and was worried that it would come out at trial. This is especially true as we are unaware of any libel judgment for non-economic damages in the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence which is even close to that amount."

Smith retorted: "There was never a suggestion by them that all I had to do was pay $1. Mr. Adelson wanted to enter a judgment against me, which would have been the same thing as a decision that I had committed constitutional malice. This was not true, and I refused to agree to it. … Mr. Adelson also wanted to be able to say that he had won the lawsuit without even mentioning that he had settled the dispute. I would not agree to that since it was not true.

"As to the $200,000 medical fund, I would have thought that Mr. Adelson would have known that I could not accept that as an ethical journalist, because it would have put me in a highly compromised position in my profession. It would have prevented me from writing about him objectively. This I would not and could not do."

Smith said that Barricade Books already has inserted an errata sheet into unsold copies of the book, correcting the errors that led to the lawsuit. "I had agreed to publish in my column, which is read by far more people than ever read or will read the book, the most dramatic correction of my career. But whatever I agreed to do, they would then ask for something more."

Regarding the $15 million potential of the case, Smith said, "He knows I didn’t pull that number out of a hat. That’s what he sued for, so that’s what you’re supposed to write down."

Smith’s supervisor at the Review-Journal, Editor Thomas Mitchell said, "I find it disturbing that the third-richest man in America has had attorneys spend years pursuing litigation over a couple of paragraphs he didn’t like in a book published two years ago."

He added, "One of the elements in a libel suit is supposed to be how much the plaintiff was injured. But in the time since this book was published, Adelson has gone from 15th richest man in the world, according to the Forbes annual ratings, to sixth, so it’s hard to see how he has been harmed."

Mitchell said Adelson has sued others over seemingly minor statements. His Sands Corp. twice sued Las Vegas Sun writer Jeff Simpson over a 2006 column suggesting Adelson was unlikely to win a casino license in Singapore. But he did. Both lawsuits were dismissed.

Mitchell said, "This whole series of events is nothing more nor less than trying to coerce everyone in journalism to not write anything he doesn’t like."

Smith and his co-defendants in the lawsuit, Barricade Books and its owner, Lyle Stuart, were represented by attorney David Blasband of New York. Stuart died last year, and the company is run by his widow, Carole Stuart, who is not personally a defendant. Barricade Books filed Wednesday for bankruptcy.

According to the lawsuit, "Smith deceptively manipulates language, quotations and sources in order to concoct the smear that Adelson had dealings with the Boston Mob when Adelson was in the vending machine business. Smith’s claims are baseless — part of Smith’s procrustean effort to find gangsters and molls behind every casino door."

Smith and his wife, Patricia, have one daughter, Amelia, now 11. Three years ago, Amelia was diagnosed with a brain tumor and flown to Phoenix for a lifesaving operation. She is in recovery, and with the use of a wheelchair is able to attend middle school. Patricia Smith is a middle school teacher but is not currently employed, allowing her to care for her daughter full-time.

"I wrote this book while our family was on the roller coaster," John Smith said. "There were diagnoses, surgery, the beginning of recovery, chemotherapy, radiation, then Amelia relapsed with another tumor, and we started recovering again. At various times during this we lived in an apartment, at home, at Ronald McDonald House, in Phoenix and Los Angeles. I’m not making excuses, but it was definitely a difficult time. And I’ve owned up to my mistakes and tried to do the right thing from the time I realized them."

Contact A.D. Hopkins at ahopkins@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0270.

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