Updated June 25, 2020 - 7:58 pm
A casino “whale hunter” and other executives have teamed up to sue Drew Las Vegas owner Steve Witkoff, alleging they were laid off from the megaresort project amid the coronavirus pandemic and weren’t paid what their contracts called for.
The five ex-employees, who boast close ties to Drew CEO Bobby Baldwin, a longtime Las Vegas casino executive, claimed they were “aggressively recruited” to join the 67-story hotel-casino project on the north Strip. Two worked at the neighboring Resorts World Las Vegas development prior to joining the Drew.
They were given job offers that included six-figure salaries, guaranteed annual bonuses and a clause stating that, unless they were fired for cause, they would be paid the balance of their salaries and bonuses for the remainder of their four-year contracts, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Clark County District Court. The fifth plaintiff received a one-year pay guarantee.
They were all hired in February to work on the multibillion-dollar project. But after Las Vegas started rapidly shutting down over fears of the new coronavirus, Witkoff’s namesake real estate firm said March 17 it suspended construction of the Drew, the unfinished former Fontainebleau.
‘Lawsuit has no merit’
Plaintiffs Paul Berry, Robert Mancari, Farid Matraki and Michael Tozzi were laid off March 31, and plaintiff Michael Peltyn lost his job April 7, says the lawsuit, which does not list their titles at the Drew but states they were high-level casino industry executives.
Witkoff’s team sent separation agreements that required them to waive all claims against the developer in order to receive two months of pay, instead of the “guaranteed payments” their contracts called for, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint was filed against Witkoff; his son Alex Witkoff, executive vice president of development at his dad’s real estate company; Baldwin, who was hired last fall as the Drew’s chief executive; and Chris Nordling, the Drew’s chief financial officer.
The lawsuit – which comes after several contractors filed liens claiming tens of millions of dollars in unpaid bills for their work at the Drew – alleged Witkoff’s team promised multiple times that project funding was in place.
“The lawsuit has no merit,” Paul Trimmer, an attorney for the defendants, said in an email Thursday. “We intend to defend against the claims vigorously when we file our response with the Court. We otherwise have no comment.”
Adam Levine, an attorney for the plaintiffs, declined further comment.
Before they joined the Drew, according to the lawsuit, Berry was vice president of hotel operations in the Sunseeker Resorts division of Las Vegas airline Allegiant Travel Co. Allegiant is developing Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor, a riverfront resort in Florida, but suspended construction in March as the pandemic upended daily life with sweeping business closures and other shutdowns.
Peltyn was senior vice president of human resources at the under-construction Resorts World Las Vegas, a $4.3 billion hotel-casino project by Malaysia’s Genting Group, and Tozzi was vice president of marketing and advertising at Resorts World.
The lawsuit also says Matraki was senior vice president of retail leasing and development for casino operator MGM Resorts International, and Mancari, the so-called whale hunter, was negotiating to take a position with the family behind casino operator Eldorado Resorts, which is buying Caesars Entertainment Corp. in a $17.3 billion deal.
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs had “worked very closely” for years with Baldwin, a former MGM executive. Moreover, Nordling had been chief financial officer at multiple MGM properties and at Resorts World.
Previous developers got started on the Fontainebleau during the frenzied mid-2000s real estate bubble. But the project, one of Las Vegas’ tallest buildings, went bankrupt after the economy crashed more than a decade ago.
Billionaire Carl Icahn acquired the mothballed resort in 2010 for around $150 million and, after leaving it largely untouched, sold the blue-tinted skyscraper in 2017 for $600 million to Witkoff and Miami real estate firm New Valley.
Witkoff unveiled the project’s new name in 2018. In January – before the pandemic shut down much of Las Vegas’ tourism-dependent economy virtually overnight – he expected to close on a roughly $2 billion construction loan in the next month or so and finish the nearly 3,800-room resort by fall 2022.
The project is named for Witkoff’s son Andrew, who died of an OxyContin overdose in 2011 at age 22.