In January, the Justice Department reversed a 2011 legal opinion on online gambling prohibitions, allowing for further restrictions that have long been sought by GOP donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. On Wednesday, American Oversight sued the department for records that could shed light on whether Adelson and other outside influences played a role in the sudden and unexplained reversal.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued the abrupt policy turnaround during the record-long government shutdown earlier this year. The reinterpretation of the 2011 OLC opinion, which limited Wire Act prohibitions to sports betting, allows the Justice Department to prosecute online gambling operations under that law.
Sheldon Adelson, who donated tens of millions of dollars to President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, has vigorously lobbied against online gambling and voiced opposition to the 2011 opinion. According to the Washington Post, lobbyists for Adelson’s company Las Vegas Sands had for years “circulated position papers in Washington arguing for a change in the 2011 Justice Department interpretation [of the Wire Act].”
Adelson’s lobbying efforts reportedly influenced the reversal: According to the Wall Street Journal, in April 2017 one of Adelson’s lobbyists sent a memo to top Justice Department officials arguing against the 2011 opinion. A month later, Criminal Division officials forwarded the memo to the Office of Legal Counsel and asked attorneys there to reconsider its position. A year and a half later, the office finalized its reinterpretation of the Wire Act in an opinion that mirrored arguments made by Adelson’s lobbyists in their 2017 memo.
“The Justice Department’s unexplained and unusual about-face raises serious questions,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. “Without more information, the public is left wondering if one of the president’s donors swayed the administration’s position in his favor.”
American Oversight’s lawsuit comes after the Justice Department failed to respond to four Freedom of Information Act requests for records related to the opinion reversal. Those records include communications the Office of Legal Counsel had with outside entities or the White House about the Wire Act reinterpretation, as well as calendar entries listing meetings with outside individuals about the issue.
See the full complaint below: