Harrah's reopens 501 rooms

Harrah's Entertainment has reached a turning point in recovering from bungled remodeling projects at two of its local hotels.

A block of 501 guest rooms at Harrah's Las Vegas returned to active use by patrons on Friday, Harrah's Entertainment executive Jan Jones announced the same day.

Those rooms were pulled from service due to remodeling that had been performed without permits or inspections. They are located on floors four through 19 of the hotel's Carnivale tower. Those floors no longer need a fire watch, which is round-the-clock patrolling by personnel with two-way communication to report any fire, Marybel Batjer, another Harrah's executive, said Saturday. The rooms were out of service for 25 days.

A smaller block of 87 rooms at the Rio also returned to service earlier last week. Those rooms were shut down for less than 25 days. At that hotel, fire watches continue on floors three through 17, plus 19, of the Ipanema tower.

"There is nothing wrong with the life safety system on those floors" on fire watch at the Rio, Batjer said Saturday. "The remodel was done on those floors without a permit. Until those floors have a proper occupancy release, there will be a fire watch."

Jones said Friday in a written statement, "We continue to make substantial progress in addressing renovation issues." The statement included an update on counts of hotel rooms affected by the improper remodels.

Teams of investigators and inspectors from the county building division, county fire department and representing Harrah's Entertainment are present at the two properties to explore the extent of undocumented remodeling, determine repairs for any substandard work, and inspect new work.

In a Sept. 27 statement, the county acknowledged that Clark County Development Services, which houses the building division, was prompted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to reopen a complaint investigation into the Rio remodel. It received the original complaint in August 2006, but did not follow up until February 2007. In a single day, a supervising building inspector then visited the Rio and submitted a four-paragraph report closing the complaint.

According to his report, the work was cosmetic only "and included new (electric) receptacles, switches, switch plates, ... carpet, flooring, wall paper, new sinks with countertops, and new toilets all of which requires no permits."

To weigh claims of significant remodeling made by Fred Frazzetta, an electrician who filed the complaint, the newspaper researched building permits and plans for the Rio. It interviewed Frazzetta and five others who had worked on the Rio remodel, rented two types of rooms in the Rio's Ipanema tower, and sought the evaluation of a construction consultant.

Spokesmen for Harrah's Entertainment, the world's largest gaming company, have declined to let media photograph the exploratory or repair processes at the two hotels. Clark County is taking photos during the course of work, but will not release them until the work is over, as part of a public report detailing the steps taken, county spokesman Stacey Welling has said.

This week, the Clark County Commission is expected to review and approve a contract for a process audit of how the building division handles complaints, including the one filed by Frazzetta.

Harrah's Entertainment will not pay any county fines for defective or undocumented remodeling, despite its corporate stature and the extent of the remodel. "Our whole focus is code compliance without being punitive," Assistant Clark County Manager Phil Rosenquist said in early October.

But Clark County recently filed three complaints against Harrah's Entertainment with the Nevada State Contractors Board for performing construction work without permits at the two hotels, and at a warehouse it owns at 3665 W. Twain Ave.

According to Jones' Friday statement, 1,535 guest rooms at the Rio underwent remodeling outside the safety procedures required by law, which include submitting plans, obtaining permits and passing inspections. Of the total, 1,392 rooms underwent lesser undocumented remodeling, with permits now applied for and "minor work to be done in (the) near future." Another 56 Rio rooms that underwent more significant remodeling now either have work under way or permit applications pending.

At Harrah's Las Vegas, 667 guest rooms were involved in improper remodeling, according to the statement. Only 166 rooms at that property are still awaiting remediation to bring them up to code.

Frazzetta was fired from Harrah's Las Vegas in June for, in his words, "six light bulbs." He had the bulbs in a backpack when he was leaving after his shift. He said he had verbal permission from a supervisor to borrow them, but forgot to obtain a written "backdoor pass." He said he wanted to compare two types of bulbs in a friend's kitchen. He also had in his backpack an unauthorized copy of an OSHA inspection report for Caesars Palace, which is another Harrah's property.

Frazzetta said he is choosing temporarily to stay unemployed in order to pursue what he describes as a safety campaign against Harrah's Entertainment. Last week, he voluntarily spent six hours taking questions from lawyers with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a Los Angeles law firm hired by the management of Harrah's Entertainment to look at internal events related to the controversial remodel projects.

According to Frazzetta, he answered questions about the remodel work, remodel supervisors and the people he believes made decisions about the remodels.

He also said he talked about his theory that certain middle managers at the Rio, Harrah's Las Vegas and the parent company took company materials or fixtures for personal use, and used company labor for improvements at managers' homes.

Frazzetta said the lawyers were familiar with material he had passed along to a complaint hot line for Harrah's employees, as well as discussions he had with managers during his employment about his safety concerns.

Throughout the investigation and remediation at the two hotels, Harrah's executives have emphasized the value the company places on guest safety.

But Frazzetta has said he is waiting for the company to publicly apologize. "I'm still looking for criminal charges."

A recent investigation revealed that required fire caulking was missing in certain penetrations of walls or concrete floors at the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas. The caulking is designed to prevent smoke or fumes from traveling from a fire to new areas of a building.

Also, the county recently accepted an engineering report commissioned by Harrah's, which verified that post-tension cables, which are imbedded in concrete to strengthen it, had been exposed or cut in several locations in the Rio tower. But engineering calculations show the slab is "still adequate to support all code required loads," according to an Oct. 15 letter from the firm, Culp & Tanner.

"What's the difference," Frazzetta asked, "between someone going in with a gun to a 7-Eleven ... and a company that did illegal remodel work, which they broke the law, and they left behind a public fire safety issue that could have been on the same level as the MGM Grand?" The 1980 fire claimed 87 lives.

A section of Nevada law that deals with safety in public accommodations lists a criminal misdemeanor for failing to do "reconstruction of existing hotels ... in accord with pertinent state laws, rules and regulations." Each day a violation is present constitutes a separate offense.

The Rio remodeling was finished in early 2006, according to workers interviewed. Some of the Harrah's remodeling appears to have taken place in 2006.

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