Former worker suing Harrah's in asbestos case


A former Harrah's Las Vegas maintenance supervisor is suing the hotel, alleging it exposed him to asbestos during hotel remodeling and alleging it created a hostile work environment.

The litigant, Ernie Savannah, who was laid off last month, also alleges in his federal lawsuit that Harrah's caused him anguish by forcing him to arrange the firing of electrician Fred Frazzetta, a troublesome whistle-blower.

Savannah, who is representing himself, said in the lawsuit that managers ordered him to "get rid of" Frazzetta, who in 2006 had reported suspicions about a problematic hotel remodeling to Clark County building officials and to the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Savannah seeks $10 million in damages from the Strip hotel and from his union, Local 501 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which he alleges failed to protect him.

"When I come home with the fibers, (hotel bosses) never told us we were supposed to decontaminate when we leave" the work site, Savannah said in a telephone interview Monday. He started at Harrah's in March 2005, advancing to a "senior watch" position in the hotel's engineering department.

Harrah's fired Frazzetta in early summer 2007.

Frazzetta reacted Monday to the news of Savannah's lawsuit. "Yeah, there's a little bit of vindication," he said wryly.

Harrah's Entertainment did not respond Tuesday to several requests for comment.

The lawsuit dovetails in many particulars with previous accounts from Frazzetta about covert remodeling at the hotel.

After county inspectors dawdled and then brushed off in early 2007 the complaint Frazzetta had filed in August 2006, the electrician took his suspicions in summer 2007 to the Review-Journal, which probed and documented extensive remodeling done at two Harrah's properties without permits or inspections.

The county reopened the complaint. Its investigation of Harrah's local properties, which continues, has turned up substandard work and work that bypassed county oversight.

Savannah's lawsuit is bolstered by records of an investigation by Nevada OSHA, which levied a fine of $6,930 against Harrah's Las Vegas in 2006 for 12 serious violations involving asbestos. Frazzetta also triggered that probe.

Savannah declined to say much to the Review-Journal on Monday beyond several statements: He has tested positive for asbestos in a medical screening. He thinks his 3-year-old child's respiratory problem can be linked to inhaling asbestos fibers that he brought home from Harrah's on his work clothing. And, he let Frazzetta go because hotel management insisted.

"Ernie was ordered to get rid of Fred (Frazzetta), meaning to fire him, because (Frazzetta) was causing problems among the other employees (by) discussing the hazardous asbestos being a life-threatening issue," the complaint said.

The complaint provides other details of Savannah's story.

"Management knew all the time the dangerous ... asbestos material was in the hotel ceilings," the lawsuit reads. Management "concealed the information from the employees until they had already renovated eight floors" of guest rooms in the hotel's Mardi Gras tower, one of the areas the county later determined had undergone undocumented, and in some cases shoddy, remodeling.

The lawsuit alleges that asbestos was present in materials that Harrah's workers disturbed when they did work over the hotel's showroom ceiling, in its laundry room and its basement, and at a hotel-casino entrance.

According to Nevada OSHA documents, Harrah's did not provide protection equipment to the crew that touched the asbestos. The agency closed the Harrah's asbestos case in December 2006, almost halving the fine from the originally proposed $11,550.

The OSHA report on the Harrah's incident identifies several hotel managers who were involved. Some of the names appear again in a separate state OSHA report from 2007 on new asbestos violations that occurred at a sister property, the Flamingo Las Vegas.

OSHA levied a $3,000 fine for the Flamingo work, reducing it from an initial $4,000 fine. Some people handled both projects, and the Flamingo incident occurred less than a year after the one at Harrah's.

The agency chose not to consider to consider the Flamingo violations a repeat problem, which would have boosted the fines, a state OSHA spokeswoman said last summer.

"Each entity was treated as a separate employer," spokeswoman Elisabeth Shurtleff wrote in a July e-mail to the Review-Journal.

Harrah's used personnel from its engineering department to do its remodeling, and the Flamingo mostly used personnel from a short-lived Harrah's subsidiary called Roman Empire Development. Harrah's Entertainment started the subsidiary after the Harrah's remodeling; it closed the unit in December 2007.

Remodeling woes at Harrah's Entertainment are not over. The gaming company spent $60.5 million in 2008 for remediation of improper remodeling at Harrah's Las Vegas and the Rio hotels, according to its year-end filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Clark County district attorney's office has postponed arraignment of the company and two employees on misdemeanor charges of violating codes during remodeling projects at the two hotels.

The district attorney is waiting for results of a review by Leo A Daly, an independent engineering firm, of code compliance at 60 remodeling projects done at Harrah's local properties in recent years, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling recently said.

One of the misdemeanor defendants, Robert Bruna, is named in OSHA's 2006 report on the asbestos problem at Harrah's.

Contact reporter Joan Whitely at jwhitely@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0268.

 

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