Reid uses muscle to expedite visa reviews for Strip investors

WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid is not apologizing for using his muscle to expedite visa reviews for investors in the redevelopment of the SLS Hotel in Las Vegas. In a front page story on Wednesday, the Washington Times reported the Senate majority leader pulled strings — some of them pretty hard — to get the US Citizenship and Immigration Services to speed visa applications of about two dozen Asian investors putting up money for the project.

The issue involves EB-5 visas, which provide a method for foreign nationals who invest in the United States to obtain green cards. According to the Times, the agency that is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security declined to fast-track its review as it had concerns about “suspicious financial activity” involving some of the visa applicants.

The intervention from Reid’s staff was so intense at one point last year that it prompted a shouting match between a Reid aide and an agency official.

“This one is going to be a major headache for us all because Sen. Reid’s office/staff is pushing hard and I just had a long yelling match on the phone,” a USCIS legislative liaison said in a Dec. 5, 2012, email to DHS officials. The Washington Times said it obtained emails from government officials who were concerned the EB-5 program had become too politicized. The emails were displayed in photos but not published in full. When career officials in the USCIS turned down the SLS Hotel’s bid for expedited reviews on Dec. 17, 2012, Reid himself got on the phone with Alejandro Mayorkas, the agency’s director, according to the report.

“While no guarantees were made on the call, Ali did promise the senator the USCIS would take a ‘fresh look’ at the expedited request,” according to an email reported by the paper. Reid’s office on Wednesday did not deny the report. Rather a spokeswoman said Reid “makes no apologies for helping to bring jobs to Nevada.

“Senator Reid has supported and will continue to support the SLS Las Vegas project in any way he can,” spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said in an email. “Sen. Reid believes it is his job to do all he can to promote economic growth and development in the state.”

Reid’s office argued to the agency the hotel would lose potential funding for renovation if the visas were not expedited. The former Sahara Hotel, bought by Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment in 2007, is being reopened as the1,600-room SLS Las Vegas through a $415 million rebuilding. “As you can imagine, this project is pretty important to Southern Nevada,” Reid aide Michael Vannozzi wrote to Homeland Security officials at one point, the paper said. “It will probably be the only ‘new’ property opening up on the Strip for some time, and if their $300 million senior lending facility from JP Morgan Chase expires because these visas aren’t processed expeditiously, it will be a huge setback for the project and the 8,600 jobs associated with it,” Vannozzi wrote.

“Within a few short weeks of Mrs. Reid’s personal intervention, the decision not to expedite the visas was reversed, allowing the hotel to secure major funding from JP Morgan Chase,” according to the Washington Times.

According to the paper, the Department of Homeland Security declined to say which specific visa applications had been expedited, and if the applications that were flagged for security reasons ultimately were approved.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.