More than three years after the dismissal of a wrongful termination lawsuit against Wynn Resorts and former CEO Steve Wynn, the judicial appointment of Wynn’s former counsel played a central role in an appeals hearing on Tuesday involving civil racketeering charges against the company.
A three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit pressed an attorney for a Wynn whistleblower Tuesday on a lawsuit that accuses Wynn of attempting to corrupt the judicial process by exerting improper influence.
The panel heard oral arguments in a Southern California courthouse approximately one year after a federal judge dismissed a RICO lawsuit filed against Wynn, Wynn Resorts, and several other defendants. Angelica Limcaco, a former salon manager at Wynn Resorts, is the whistleblower in a case surrounding Steve Wynn’s alleged sexual misconduct 17 years ago. Wynn stepped down as CEO of Wynn Resorts in February 2018 amid a series of sexual misconduct allegations. Wynn, 80, has denied all of the allegations.
Appeals court hears former Wynn salon manager’s suit against Steve Wynn https://t.co/CvGFE6lFxg
— Las Vegas Aide (@LasVegasAide) December 7, 2022
Shortly after the opening of the mogul’s flagship Wynn Las Vegas resort in 2005, the CEO allegedly pressured a manicurist into having sex, according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal report. The manicurist later received a concealed $7.5 million payment from Steve Wynn, a settlement that was confirmed through a Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) investigation. Limcaco’s wrongful termination lawsuit was dismissed in 2019.
While an attorney for Limcaco argued Tuesday that Wynn’s former counsel was elevated to the position of federal magistrate in an attempt to influence the decision in the 2019 case, attorneys for Wynn Resorts countered that the plaintiffs failed to prove causation in the allegations.
Attorneys for Limcaco filed the charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was known colloquially as the “anti-mob” bill when it was signed into law in 1970. RICO cases have had wider implications beyond organized crime in recent decades.
Wynn Resorts declined comment on the litigation when reached by US Bets on Tuesday evening.
Charges of improper influence
Limcaco initially filed a lawsuit against Wynn Resorts in Nevada District Court in 2018, alleging wrongful termination and retaliation, among other charges. Elayna Youchah, Wynn’s lead counsel in the case, made all of the filings in the case on Wynn’s behalf until April 2, 2019, according to federal court records. At that point, Youchah had been selected as a magistrate judge in Nevada District Court, replacing retiring longtime magistrate George Foley.
Nevada District Judge Miranda Du dismissed Limcaco’s claims against Wynn on April 18, 2019, citing evidence that the statute of limitations had expired. Limcaco, according to the dismissal motion, filed the claims nearly 12 years after her termination. Although the MGC allowed Wynn Resorts to keep its Massachusetts gaming license, the commission fined Wynn Resorts $35 million on April 30, 2019, for failing to disclose sexual misconduct allegations against former CEO Wynn. By that May, the public learned of Youchah’s appointment when she formally replaced Foley on the court.
Jordan Matthews, Limcaco’s attorney, also contends that financial contributions made from Wynn Resorts to the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada (LACSN) played a role in the alleged scheme. Barbara Buckley, speaker of the Nevada State Assembly from 2007 through 2011, currently serves as the center’s executive director. Buckley, who was also named as a defendant in the suit, served on a merit selection panel that made recommendations for the replacement of vacancies on the Nevada District Court.
University of Nevada grad, Nevada Assemblywoman (1995-2011), and the first woman Speaker of the Nevada Assembly, Barbara Buckley was born on Nov 23, 1960 in Philadelphia, PA. https://t.co/LoepinTtcO
Note: Buckley is one of the longest serving Nevada Assemblywomen at 16 years. pic.twitter.com/0Gs1XUbZH8
— HISTORY:nevada (@HistoryNevada) November 24, 2022
Following the 2019 dismissal, Wynn Resorts sponsored LACSN’s annual awards event in December of that year. Buckley also received campaign donations from Wynn Resorts as early as 2017, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Kim Sinatra, another defendant named in the lawsuit, was part of a group that donated an additional $250,000 to LACSN on Nov. 8, 2019, the suit alleges. Sinatra, former general counsel of Wynn Resorts, stepped down from her position in July 2018.
The Wynn defendants intended to use their payments to LACSN to influence Buckley in elevating Youchah to the position of magistrate, the suit alleges. Wynn Resorts made annual payments of $100,000 to the center for a period of several years, Matthews said Tuesday.
Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Limcaco’s legal team filed a 56-page motion citing evidence it claims provides a “direct causal link” between Wynn Resorts’ efforts to elevate Youchah to the position of a judge and the dismissal of the 2019 case. In July 2022, Wynn Resorts challenged a motion for Youchah’s recusal in Feris v. Wynn Resorts, a separate class action suit against the hotel chain.
The Ninth Circuit hearing on Tuesday lasted roughly an hour.
“We are pleased that the Ninth Circuit considered our arguments concerning our civil RICO claims. The claims are thoroughly documented and supported by directly related and coinciding investigations and actions by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. We will leave the issues to the Ninth Circuit to make a determination,” Matthews wrote in a statement provided to US Bets.
Skepticism from the Ninth Circuit
At Tuesday’s hearing, several judges on the panel expressed skepticism that the actions rose to corrupt conduct under the RICO Act. U.S. Circuit Judge Bridget S. Bade noted that Wynn Resorts began making contributions to the legal aid center a year before the lawsuit was filed. Even if Buckley made a recommendation that Youchah should be among the five finalists for the magistrate opening, she questioned Matthews on how Judge Du was improperly influenced.
Ryan D. Nelson, another judge on the panel, questioned whether Youchah could exert undue influence on the case considering that she never presided over it. Austin Norris, an attorney for Wynn Resorts, responded that the plaintiffs failed to prove causation in part because Youchah did not begin her bench term until August 2019, five months after the case was dismissed.
Last November, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew dismissed the case, ruling that it relied upon circumstantial evidence and contained highly speculative assumptions. The Ninth Circuit agreed to hear the matter after Wynn Resorts lost a motion for summary affirmance in April.
Separately, the defendants allegedly withheld information from Limcaco’s claims in a bid to open the Encore Boston Harbor, a $2.6 billion casino project. ML Strategies, a political consulting firm, was also named in the suit stemming from its role in lobbying Massachusetts regulators to approve the license for the casino.
The WynnBet retail sportsbook at Encore Boston Harbor is doing everything a sportsbook does- except take bets – as it awaits final sign-off from Massachusetts regulators, $WYNN officials said today; company is also working to figure out locations for on-property betting kiosks
— Ryan Butler (@ButlerBets) August 18, 2022
Limcaco’s attorneys argue that the District Court should have considered numerous public records that were filed over the duration of the case. In addition, attorneys for Limcaco argue that that the District Court should have considered documents related to Elliott Broidy, who pleaded guilty to a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in October 2020. In a separate case, a U.S. federal judge ruled in October that Steve Wynn cannot be ordered to register as an agent of China under FARA. The ruling dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against Wynn five months earlier.
The timing of when the Ninth Circuit will issue an opinion on the RICO appeal is unclear. The Ninth Circuit does not have a time limit per case, but most cases are decided within a period of three months to a year, according to the court’s website.
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY