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Charged with felonies, tourism boss gets ‘sweetheart’ deal

Updated August 24, 2020 - 12:26 pm

Rossi Ralenkotter struck a plea deal Monday in the high-profile criminal case tied to the misuse of Southwest Airlines gift cards bought by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Ralenkotter, 73, pleaded no contest in court to a misdemeanor charge of violation by a public officer. The former CEO of the tax-funded agency had been facing two felony charges, theft and misconduct by a public officer.

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia ordered Ralenkotter to pay a $1,000 fine as part of an agreement Ralenkotter and his lawyer Anthony Sgro worked out with prosecutors.

By pleading no contest, Ralenkotter did not admit guilt but acknowledged prosecutors may have enough evidence to convict him at trial, legal experts said.

[ Police probe: Ex-LVCVA boss gave taxpayer-paid gift cards to staff ]

Former prosecutors who are now defense attorneys questioned the agreement.

“To have him plead to a misdemeanor looks like a sweetheart deal to me,” Todd Leventhal said. “I’m not sure how this instills the public’s confidence.”

Kathleen Bliss added: “This is why people lose faith in the system. It depends on who you know and how much power you have. So much for the little guy.”

Ralenkotter and Sgro declined to comment outside the courtroom. So did Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Scow, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson did not respond to a request for comment.

Ralenkotter’s access to large sums of public tourism dollars and his relationships with the major casinos on the Strip made him one of the most powerful public officials in the state.

Three other defendants — former LVCVA Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Tull and ex-Director of Business Partnerships Brig Lawson, and former Southwest Airlines marketing executive Eric Woodson — all are still facing felony charges in the alleged theft of thousands of Southwest gift cards.

Last week, Ralenkotter agreed to pay $24,406 in ethics fines for violating state laws prohibiting him from using his longtime public position to enrich himself.

Tull, 52, agreed to pay $8,700 in fines last year and Lawson, 50, is under a state ethics investigation.

The criminal and ethics investigations stem from Ralenkotter’s use of nearly $17,000 in Southwest gift cards on personal travel and Tull’s personal use of $6,000 in cards.

Police alleged that Lawson hid the LVCVA’s purchase of $90,000 in Southwest cards between 2012 and 2017 in promotional invoices. He allegedly instructed the airline’s employees, including Woodson, to help him disguise the transactions.

Ralenkotter and Tull reimbursed the convention authority for their personal travels before they left the influential convention authority. Ralenkotter was earning almost $1 million a year in salary and benefits at the time and went on to collect a nearly $300,000 annual state pension.

The criminal investigation was prompted by Review-Journal stories disclosing audit results that showed widespread misuse of the Southwest gift cards. The agency could not account for more than $50,000 of the cards, the audit found.

The audit was ordered amid the newspaper’s investigation that revealed wasteful spending and poor board oversight of the convention authority, which at the time had a $251 million operating budget, mostly from tourist taxes, to lure visitors to Las Vegas. The 14-member LVCVA board includes elected leaders and casino industry executives.

Despite the criminal investigation, the board approved his $455,000 retirement package in August 2018 that included a $270,000 consulting contract with the agency after he stepped down. The board canceled the 18-month contract after Ralenkotter was charged.

Since the scandal became public in 2018, the LVCVA has tightened its travel and business policies.

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.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter. German is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Support our journalism.

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