At the center of this election season's explosion of vast donations of cash is Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate who owns hotels in Las Vegas and Macau and has donated tens of millions of dollars to the Republican presidential campaign.
The U.S. Justice Department and Nevada authorities are looking into whether Adelson's company, Las Vegas Sands, violated federal law while negotiating the construction of its casino in Macau.
Both investigations are ongoing and will likely take months to complete. But the investigative journalism organization ProPublica obtained emails and company documents from within the company that shed light on events leading to the investigation.
Managing editor Stephen Engelberg said the internal documents showed Adelson hired a high-ranking Macua lawmaker and lawyer, Leonel Alves, to help his company negotiate a series of thorny real estate issues. Alves said he would apply "pressure" on local planning officials to help with the process, according to the ProPublica story.
The internal documents revealed that Adelson told a top executive to pay about $700,000 to Alves for his services, despite warnings that the arrangement could violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The act bans American companies from paying foreign officials to "affect or influence any act or decision" for business gain.
"The Justice Department has set a pretty strict standard for this," Engelberg said. "What they will tell you if you ask them is that you have to be very, very careful about hiring somebody in this position because it's so easy to go over the line."
The ProPublica story said it was unknown whether Adelson was aware of the internal warnings. What is certain is that many of the people who raised concerns over the arrangement with Alves didn’t remain employed for long.
"Everybody who said that who we can track down within the company was subsequently either fired or resigned," Engelberg said.
The ongoing investigation could place Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, in an unprecedented situation if he's elected president: prosecuting one of the most important donors to his campaign.
No individual has put more money behind Republican candidates this election than Adelson. He and his wife, Miriam, accounted for around half of the $20 million raised last month by Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supports Romney's presidential campaign.
"The new president and his attorney general would have to decide what to do with recommendations about that case, which I think will come well into the next administration," Engelberg said.