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Preliminary hearing set for defendants in LVCVA gift card scandal

A March 26 preliminary hearing has been set for four defendants in the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority probe, including former CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, charged with stealing Southwest gift cards from the agency.

The tax-funded LVCVA purchased $90,000 in Southwest gift cards between 2012 and 2017 and the defendants used at least $35,000 worth of cards on personal travel, police and agency records show.

The prosecution is scheduled to release thousands of pages of discovery Thursday to defense attorneys representing Ralenkotter, 72, former marketing chief Cathy Tull, 52, business partnerships director Brig Lawson, 49, and Southwest airlines employee Eric Woodson, 54. None of the defendants appeared in court Wednesday.

Prosecutors filed a seven-count complaint Sept. 9 against the defendants. The charges came after a yearlong investigation that Las Vegas police said was prompted by Review-Journal stories disclosing audit results critical of the gift card purchases.

Defense attorneys had conflicts for dates in November and December, and, for an unknown reason, Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia said the next available time for the hearing was in March.

The convention authority has a $251 million operating budget, mostly from hotel room taxes, to promote tourism in Las Vegas. It is overseen by a 14-member board, which includes local elected leaders and gaming executives.

Letizia also scheduled arguments for Nov. 19 on a request from the Las Vegas Review-Journal to obtain an unredacted copy of an arrest warrant affidavit that was released Sept. 20.

Ralenkotter, once one of the most influential public officials in the state, took personal trips with what police alleged was nearly $16,000 in gift cards, the complaint alleges. His former chief marketing officer, Cathy Tull, 52, used $6,000 in cards on personal travel.

Both Ralenkotter and Tull were charged in the complaint with theft and misconduct of a public officer. If convicted, they each face a total of 14 years in prison and $15,000 fine.

Lawson faces charges of theft, forgery and unlawful use of public money. He bought the gift cards for the convention authority and instructed Southwest employees to hide the purchases in promotional invoices, police allege.

Woodson faces theft and forgery charges. Police allege he helped Lawson disguise the purchase of the gift cards in airline invoices.

Lawyers for the four defendants are planning aggressive defenses.

LVCVA officials discovered the personal gift card use in late 2017 as a result of a Review-Journal public records request. The newspaper has been investigating excessive spending and lax accountability of gifts to staffers and board members at the LVCVA, most of which occurred during Ralenkotter’s tenure.

Last week, the LVCVA terminated a $15,000-a-month consulting contract with Ralenkotter in the wake of the criminal charges. The board gave him the contract in August 2018 as part of a $455,000 retirement agreement. Ralenkotter was a target of the criminal investigation at the time.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands Corp. operates the Sands Expo & Convention Center, which competes with the LVCVA-operated Las Vegas Convention Center.

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Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

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