By BRADY McCOMBS and KEN RITTER
LAS VEGAS (AP) _ The reporting assignment was odd, mostly because it came from the owners of Las Vegas’ main newspaper: Take three reporters off their beats and have them closely follow three judges.
The decision generated chatter in the newsroom, but that turned into open concern after it was revealed weeks later that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family had purchased the paper in a secretive exchange that prompted even presidential candidates to call for transparency.
After the outgoing Review-Journal editor spiked the story, and the reporters returned to their beats, came a strange discovery from across the country that made the temporary reassignment take on a more worrisome tone. It led the newspaper to write a front-page story laying out possible meddling by Adelson, because owners traditionally stay out of news, out of respect for the First Amendment.
A small Connecticut newspaper had written a story that singled out one of the Nevada judges the Las Vegas reporters had been monitoring: Elizabeth Gonzalez. The New Britain Herald called her rulings “inconsistent” and “contradictory” as rationale for why Connecticut may not want to consider the creation of business courts.
The judge has butted heads numerous times with Adelson’s attorneys in a high-profile wrongful termination lawsuit brought against Adelson’s casino company, Las Vegas Sands.
Earlier this year, Gonzalez admonished Adelson in court for not answering a routine question about work emails, telling him he couldn’t argue with her.
Turns out, the publisher of the Connecticut paper– the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press– is Michael Schroeder. He also happens to be the manager of a Delaware company formed to facilitate the purchase of the Review-Journal for the Adelsons. He was introduced to the Review-Journal newsroom on Dec. 10, and Schroeder was the one who initially refused to identify the owners.
On Tuesday, the Review-Journal editor who decided not to run the story, Mike Hengel, told newspaper staff he was stepping down after accepting a voluntary buyout.
Hengel stunned the newsroom with the news, according to several staff members who took to Twitter after the announcement.
A “message from the new owners about the future of the Las Vegas Review-Journal,” due for publication on the front page on Wednesday, also announces Hengel’s departure, along with “other R-J employees.”
Photographer Kevin Cannon and reporter Bethany Barnes each confirmed their postings to The Associated Press, along with longtime columnist Jane Ann Morrison. She posted a message saying Hengel “leaves the RJ with his integrity intact.”
“I think my resignation probably comes as a relief to the new owners,” Hengel said, according to an audio recording obtained by the AP.
As the media industry shifts in an ever-changing landscape, billionaires have dabbled in buying newspapers and other mainstream media outlets, so Adelson’s purchase on the surface wasn’t unusual.
But few American newspaper owners have as vocal an agenda as Adelson, a Republican kingmaker known for handing over tens of millions to political campaigns.
Gatehouse Media, the paper’s former owner that will continue managing it, has said Adelson has no intention of using the newspaper as a platform. Adelson himself has said nothing beyond issuing a family statement vowing to invest in the newspaper to make it top notch.
Andrew Seaman, the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee chairman, stresses that the story in the Connecticut newspaper could be a coincidence but acknowledges the only way to describe the sequence of events is “weird.”
“The implication is that there is some connection with the Connecticut newspaper and it’s all connected to the sale,” Seaman said. “It’s very concerning.”
Hengel, the Review-Journal’s editor, said he made the decision not to publish any of it, sent the research to publisher Jason Taylor and never heard more.
“I didn’t see the point of it. I still don’t see the point of it,” Hengel told The Associated Press on Tuesday, adding that he had not talked with anybody from the Adelson family or Schroeder. “I wasn’t interested in publishing it.”
Schroeder did not return phone calls and emails from The Associated Press. He declined comment to The New York Times, but told the newspaper the Las Vegas reporters were “stirring up trouble.”
Adelson’s spokesman for the Las Vegas Sands, Ron Reese, declined comment.
The Adelsons bought the Review-Journal and a handful of other Nevada papers for $140 million _ nearly $40 million more than what Gatehouse paid for the newspaper and several other properties in February. The family has not spoken publicly since they ended a week of speculation and demands by staff, media watchdogs and politicians to know the identity of the new boss.
The Adelsons said they held back revealing themselves as owner because they didn’t want an announcement to distract from last week’s Republican presidential debate held at The Venetian, the casino-hotel on the Las Vegas Strip that is part of Adelson’s empire.
Hengel said he’s proud of his staff for the professional way they’ve handled themselves during a tumultuous month.
Seaman said Review-Journal reporters have earned respect for their dogged reporting about their own sale.
“It shows they are not afraid to stand up to the people who sign their paychecks, which is very admirable and lives up to the SPJ code of ethics,” Seaman said.
Judge Gonzalez declined comment through her court executive assistant.
Associated Press writer Sally Ho contributed this report