Work at resorts leads to charges


Two hotel supervisors, one each at the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas, were charged Tuesday with misdemeanor offenses stemming from problematic remodeling that affected hundreds of guest rooms. If prosecutors win convictions on all counts, the maximum sentences are limited by law to a total of $17,000 in fines and/or 81/2 years in jail.

District Attorney David Roger said Scott Mitchell, head of the office's major fraud unit, will prosecute the two cases, which involve work done without required permits or inspections. The defendants' arraignments in Justice Court are both set for April 1, before different judges.

Asked why his office had charged men in positions that seem to lack the authority to decide or orchestrate extensive renovations on their own, Roger said his office had simply reviewed 18 misdemeanor citations against the men -- issued in December by the county's building division -- to make sure there was sufficient evidence.

He did not say whether higher level executives might be charged in the future.

"No comment," said Robert Bruna on Tuesday afternoon when asked by cell phone who his attorney will be. Bruna, the chief engineer at Harrah's on the Strip, faces 12 misdemeanor counts for improper work done at that property. The district attorney deleted one of Bruna's 13 December citations.

"I have no comment," David "Skip" Matthews said before hanging up the phone when reached at his Rio office Tuesday afternoon. He is facilities director of the Rio, and faces four misdemeanor counts for renovation at the off-Strip hotel. He also faces a fifth count for work at a West Twain warehouse owned by Harrah's Entertainment, parent company of the two resorts.

The corporation expected the misdemeanor complaints, according to executive Jan Jones. They "don't reflect any new allegations," she said by e-mailed statement.

"Harrah's continues to work cooperatively with county officials, and remediation efforts are well under way and on schedule," said Jones, a senior vice president, who was out of town Tuesday. She did not take any questions from the Review-Journal.

The "volume of violations found" dictated the need for criminal citations, County Manager Virginia Valentine said Tuesday in a written statement. "Our building and fire codes are in place to ensure public safety, and the court is the appropriate arbitrator for deciding whether criminal penalties are appropriate."

The maximum penalty for each misdemeanor count is six months in jail and/or $1,000. But the complaints are structured conservatively. In one case, work on five hotel floors in the North Mardi Gras tower at Harrah's Las Vegas -- which represents about 58 suites -- is described as a single count.

The law allows prosecutors to consider each day a given violation exists as a separate misdemeanor count. But Tuesday's complaints do not factor in the length of time that violations were allowed to continue.

"Ask the building division," Roger replied, when asked why the violations were grouped into only 17 counts. The counts were based on the investigation prepared for his office by the building division.

Starting in late September, more than 1,000 Rio guest rooms have been investigated by county agencies for undocumented or substandard work, with about 50 closed for an extended period.

In October, Harrah's Las Vegas voluntarily took more than 600 rooms out of service to facilitate inspectors' work. Some of those remain off-line. On Tuesday morning Harrah's executive Marybel Batjer could not quantify how many. In some blocks of rooms, she noted, the hotel has decided to incorporate further remodeling into the present efforts to meet building codes, which has delayed their return to leasable inventory.

In midsummer, the Review-Journal uncovered the questionable remodeling, which the hotels and the county building division had passed off as cosmetic work that didn't require permits. The division sat on a 2006 complaint about the Rio remodeling for six months, then issued a perfunctory report in February 2007, clearing the Rio.

The newspaper started publishing its findings about the remodeling in early October. In November, the Clark County commissioners retained a New York-based consultant, Michael Kessler, to analyze the county's process for handling complaints involving building permits. His report, which will be public, is due later this month.

Roger also said that several weeks ago members of his fraud prosecution staff met with officials from the building division and Harrah's Entertainment. He said the corporation, which was represented by several attorneys, including Richard Bryan, conveyed its desire to be responsible for its activities.

Bryan, a former U.S. senator and state governor who works for the law firm Lionel Sawyer & Collins, did not return several phone calls placed Tuesday requesting comment.

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

 

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