Correction appended: Jan. 7, 2016
Nevada District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez is used to seeing journalists in her courtroom. A wrongful termination case brought against casino magnate and billionaire political donor Sheldon Adelson currently on her docket has been one of the city's most-watched cases for years. Yet the judge thought it surprising when she spotted a reporter from the Las Vegas Review-Journal in attendance at a decidedly mundane court proceeding in November. So she approached him.
"He seemed upset because he was sitting through this very boring hearing," Gonzalez told TIME. "But he told me, 'The boss said I had to be here.'"
Why the reporter was sent to keep tabs Gonzalez's courtroom has become one of the biggest questions in the strange saga of the recent sale of the Review-Journal, the largest newspaper in the state. On Dec. 10, the paper was acquired by a shell company backed by Adelson and his family for $140 million, far above what analysts considered its market value. For nearly a week after the sale was confirmed, Adelson resisted acknowledging the purchase, and the only name publicly connected to the shell company was Michael Schroeder, a publisher of small papers in Connecticut.
As journalists and political observers try to make sense of Adelson's motivation for the deal and lack of transparency in announcing it, Gonzalez and the case she's presiding over have emerged as one potential motivation. On Dec. 1, a story on business court judges that was critical of Gonzalez's rulings appeared in two of Schroeder's papers, which usually keep to local issues. And while Adelson was reportedly in negotiations to buy the Review-Journal, several of the paper's journalists were ordered to monitor Gonzalez and two other Clark County judges.
Gonzalez has been a matter of concern for Adelson since at least 2010, when the former head of Macau operations for Sands Corp., Adelson's gambling empire, sued the company and Adelson over his firing. During a May appearance as a witness in the case, Adelson refused to answer a question presented to him by one of the attorneys, and Gonzalez admonished him.
“Sir, you need to answer the question,” Gonzalez said, according to the Review-Journal. Adelson refused and described the question—concerning whether an email sent by Adelson’s secretary was sent with his knowledge—as disrespectful.
“Sir, you don’t get to argue with me,” Gonzalez said. “You understand that?”
Attorneys who have been inside Gonzalez's courtroom describe her as a fair jurist who doesn't try to curry favor with those who hold sway in America's gambling capital. They describe her as courteous and considerate, noting her habit of keeping M&M's on hand for nervous witnesses. She received the support of 81% of lawyers in a biennial survey of judges conducted by the Review-Journal, and most recently has been on the district’s business court circuit, which routinely includes complex commercial cases.
“That’s usually the assignment that goes to people who are capable of handling it,” says Jeff Stempel, a professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
After law school at the University of Florida, Gonzalez moved to Nevada when her then-husband got a job in the state. She gained prominence in Las Vegas legal circles for her successful defense of Southwest Gas in the PEPCON rocket plant explosion in 1988, which killed two people and injured almost 400 when it blew up 10 miles outside of the city. PEPCON sued Southwest Gas for $30 million and initially blamed the company for the blast.
“She was a very well-respected litigator with a strong personality, and yet she was very good at balancing all the other different personalities that were at the firm,” says Nevada District Court Judge Patrick Flanagan, who worked with Gonzalez at a local law firm in the early 1990s. “She was a very effective leader.”
Since being appointed to fill a vacancy on the Clark County bench in 2004, Gonzalez has presided over cases involving shootings on the Las Vegas strip, construction boondoggles and child pornography charges. She even locked up some of Michael Jackson’s belongings and memorabilia at the Las Vegas courthouse while she was trying to determine their rightful owners. But the case involving Adelson has become the most significant of her tenure.
In 2010, Steven Jacobs, the former chief executive of Sands’ operation in Macau, sued the company over his firing and later added Adelson as a defendant. Jacobs claims he was terminated for refusing to do business with people who may have had ties to Chinese organized crime and that Adelson asked him to secretly investigate Macau government officials.
In 2012, Gonzalez fined Sands and Sands China $25,000 for an “intention to deceive” the court for failing to hand over e-mails to Jacobs and his lawyers. In early 2015, she fined Sands China $250,000 for similar violations.
“Judge Gonzalez is not afraid to make unpopular decisions,” says Louis Schneider, a Las Vegas defense attorney who has brought cases before Gonzalez. Schneider says in a recent case involving charges of child pornography against a police officer, for example, Gonzalez told him she wouldn’t try to score political points by giving the officer a harsher sentence than was justified. “A judge that worries about re-election, they would come down hard on that case,” he says.
Gonzalez says she can't discuss Adelson or the sale of the Review-Journal because of the ongoing case. But she says she does try to put witnesses at ease in her courtroom, pointing to regular breaks she offers witnesses and supply of M&M's. Asked whether Adelson had any candy on the stand, Gonzalez says, "I can't answer that question."
A representative for the Adelson family declined to comment on Gonzalez. In a statement issued after confirming their ownership of the Review-Journal, the Adelson family pledged to "publish a newspaper that is fair, unbiased and accurate."
"Adelson may feel aggrieved by some of her rulings," says UNLV's Stempel. "But is that enough for someone to take over a newspaper? Presumably there is also a larger Adelson agenda to be more politically active.”
At the Review-Journal, the staff is now tasked with covering a high-profile legal case with great consequence for its new owner. This week, the newspaper compiled new guidelines on when to disclose its new ownership in its stories, according to a series of tweets by Stephanie Grimes, a features editor there. And Schroeder, the publisher first connected to the mysterious sale, has since acknowledged that the story about business courts involving Gonzalez was written under a fake byline and relied on articles previously published elsewhere. By the first week of January, Schroeder had been removed from any management role with the Review-Journal or the shell company used to purchase it.
Meanwhile, the wrongful termination suit against Adelson and his gambling empire continues. Adelson's legal team had attempted to get Gonzalez removed from the case altogether, alleging that she showed bias in her pretrial decisions. But in November, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the defense did not file the required documents, and that Gonzalez would stay on the case.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified which entities were fined related to this case. In 2012, Gonzalez fined Sands and Sands China $25,000. In 2015, Gonzalez fined Sands China $250,000.