Using state law on public records as leverage, the Las Vegas Review-Journal obtained from Clark County the 46-page arbitration document that reinstated Rick Maddox, the building inspection supervisor who had failed to detect extensive unauthorized remodeling at the Rio hotel.
In the document, arbitrator Peter Maydanis outlines his reasoning for finding the county unfairly terminated Maddox, saying the firing was largely in reaction to bad media coverage in late 2007. That is when the Las Vegas Review-Journal disclosed the hotel's hidden remodeling from 2006, and the county's superficial investigation in early 2007 clearing the Rio.
Another key factor in Maydanis' binding decision, dated Dec. 28, 2008, was the county's previous stance that an inspector's job is to check visible construction work, rather than do forensic investigation of completed work that might have been concealed. Maddox had never been trained to do such investigations, concluded the arbitrator, who is also a lawyer in Arizona.
Maydanis described the Rio remodeling as "work which the hotel was blatantly making every effort to conceal." For building safety, county codes require property owners to obtain permits and inspections when they substantially revise existing construction. The Rio failed to do either when it converted an entire floor in one tower from small guest rooms to multi-room "super" suites.
Maddox returned to his job in January, but it wasn't widely known.
To reach his decision, the arbitrator read, but gave little weight to an independent consultant's scathing analysis of Maddox's role at the Rio. Maydanis said he did so because the county had terminated Maddox in February 2008, a month before Michael Kessler's report came out. A New York consultant, Kessler was hired by the county to look at the Rio incident, and the county's process for handling complaints about violations of its commercial building codes.
Maydanis described the seriousness of the allegations and noted that "but for the investigation by the local press, the Rio would have succeeded in substantially remodeling a part of its property without permits or inspections. The life and safety issues created by the hotel's deliberate concealment would have been just as real and imminent for the public put at risk had it not been uncovered by the earnest work of the press' dedicated reporters. This leads one to ponder how many other 'skeletons' lie buried in the many hotels of Clark County ..."
Fred Frazzetta, a nonunion electrician who had worked on the Rio project, contacted a Review-Journal reporter in early summer 2007 with his suspicions about the cover-up, shortly after Harrah's Las Vegas had fired him, allegedly for pilfering several light bulbs. He maintains they let him go because he had started challenging bosses as to whether remodeling jobs at the Rio and Harrah's on the Strip were complying with building codes.
The reporter and electrician then went through hundreds of county permits and plans for the Rio to document the secretive creation of the super suites, as well as significant rewiring and replumbing that took place without inspections in hundreds of the tower's other guest rooms. After the county reopened the Rio investigation that Maddox had closed, its inspectors found not only undocumented renovations, but some that needed to be redone because they violated codes.
Almost two years later, mitigation still continues at the Rio, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said last week, mainly in the form of devising and executing tests for the fire alarm system and "fire suppression" water lines in the newly remediated areas of the guest tower.
Maydanis gave a timeline of events in his lengthy arbitration opinion and award. The timeline shows county officials didn't meet with hotel officials until autumn 2007, after the Review-Journal had started interviewing parties about a cover-up of extensive remodeling at the Rio, which belongs to Harrah's Entertainment.
According to Maydanis' timeline, Harrah's representatives didn't tell the truth when they first met with county officials on Sept. 20, 2007, to talk about remodeling at the Rio.
Five days later, the group met again. This time, according to Maydanis' document, "Harrah's made a clean breast of things, openly admitting that the thrust of Frazzetta's allegations were true."
"It's ridiculous. It's like a fairy tale. I'm in disbelief," Frazzetta said Thursday, when he learned the arbitration document says Maddox did 60 hours of research into the Rio's construction history, but still could not locate the original plans for the tower, which is part of the hotel's original structure. A Review-Journal reporter and Frazzetta succeeded in finding them, spending between 12 and 15 hours at a county computer doing the research.
Yet in Maddox's Feb. 16, 2007, investigation report on the Rio, which is four paragraphs long, he wrote that the rooms on the 19th floor were "super suites per the original approved plans." But the original approved plans do not show any super suites.
Maddox also wrote that he inspected 37 rooms, scattered between the third and 19th floors, and determined "the only work found that requires a permit was the replacement of one light fixture in each unit." The county later determined Maddox spent only 38 minutes that day at the Rio, by checking the GPS system in his county vehicle.
While Maddox's investigation may have been "palpably faulty, hurried and lacking in quality," the arbitrator denies that it raises questions about Maddox' integrity or honesty.
But Frazzetta questioned Thursday why Maddox would spend 60 hours searching for plans, yet 38 minutes inspecting Rio guest rooms. "It makes me wonder who is he covering for? Why would they have hired him back? What else does he know" about construction shortcuts elsewhere in town?
The arbitrator's opinion erroneously ascribes the Rio remodeling work to Roman Empire Development, a construction subsidiary of Harrah's Entertainment that has since disbanded. Roman Empire Development was not formed until December 2006, when the Rio work was over.
When Welling released the opinion, she said the county made no transcript of Maddox's arbitration hearing, and the arbitrator had already destroyed the recordings. The county did not keep, either, the post-hearing briefs submitted by each side. Maddox and other county supervisors belong to a unit of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1107.
Contact reporter Joan Whitely at email@example.com or 702-383-0268.