MADRID — Two struggling Spanish cities, Madrid and Barcelona, have been eagerly courting the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson for months, each of them trying to become the site of his planned casino and leisure resort.
But now a possible stumbling block has emerged, as opponents of Mr. Adelson’s plans are raising questions about his company’s dealings inMacau, which have come under investigation in the United States and China. On Wednesday, an environmental party, ICV-EUiA, called on Mr. Adelson to appear before the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona to explain why his company, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, had run into legal problems.
Las Vegas Sands is being investigated by American authorities on suspicion of violating antibribery laws linked to its expansion in Macau, the Chinese gambling capital and a major source of income for the company. The company has denied wrongdoing and has said the investigation stems from the accusations of a disgruntled former employee. The Chinese authorities have also been investigating some of the company’s activities.
Jaume Bosch, a lawmaker from the Catalan Green Party, expressed concern that the Spanish authorities had recently welcomed Mr. Adelson “like a head of state, while the most powerful countries in the world have placed him under suspicion.”
Las Vegas Sands’ plans to build a giant casino complex in Spain have created a bidding battle between the two biggest cities in the country. Officials are eager to attract development while Spain is in the midst of its second recession in three years, with record unemployment of almost 25 percent. The government is struggling to convince investors that the country will not sink deeper into crisis and require a full European bailout.
Mr. Adelson and other Sands executives have made several visits to possible building sites in Madrid and Barcelona. The two cities also recently sent delegations to Las Vegas in a bid to win over company executives. The Sands complex, to be called EuroVegas, would have 12 hotels with a total of 36,000 rooms, 6 casinos with 18,000 slot machines and 3 golf courses.
Esperanza Aguirre, the head of Madrid’s regional government, has urged the national government to meet concessions requested by Mr. Adelson, including some tax exemptions, as well as an easing of Spanish restrictions on smoking in public spaces. Ms. Aguirre’s request, however, has led to questions over whether granting special treatment to Las Vegas Sands would open the door to similar concessions for other investors.
While a final decision was initially expected before the summer, the Sands has pushed back any announcement until September. The Sands still hopes to start construction in mid-2013 and complete the complex within 10 years, said Michael A. Leven, the company’s president. Mr. Leven said in June at a news conference in Barcelona that the decision to build a casino complex in Spain should not be compared to “a soccer match between Madrid and Barcelona.”
Still, some Spanish politicians are acutely aware that the longstanding rivalry between the two cities is helping the politically savvy Mr. Adelson.
“It has worked great for him to have two cities competing so fiercely, with everybody trying to make the maximum efforts to meet his wishes,” Xavier Trias, the mayor of Barcelona, said earlier this year. “But if he thinks the European casino model can become the same as in China or Vegas, I think that he is wrong, because there are laws here that really cannot and shouldn’t be changed.”
As an example, Mr. Trias said, “In Vegas you can cross a casino to a hotel room with children, but that isn’t possible here.”
Some civic groups oppose plans for EuroVegas on environmental grounds. Other opponents say they fear that by promoting gambling, Spain might encourage criminal activities like prostitution and money laundering.
“Our politicians are presenting this as a project that will save us from the economic crisis, but they’re ignoring several reasons why this goes against what this country should push for,” said Sonia Pomares, a member of Aturem EuroVegas, or Stop EuroVegas, a protest association formed this year in Catalonia.