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Ex-LVCVA chief continues pattern of luxury travel at taxpayer expense

Updated May 24, 2019 - 6:20 am

The embattled former CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority continued a pattern of luxury traveling at taxpayer expense over the past year as a well-paid consultant for the tourism agency, records show.

At the same time, Rossi Ralenkotter provided the convention authority with little written explanation of what he did for $15,000 a month in consulting fees, according to records obtained by the Review-Journal.

Ralenkotter’s successor, Steve Hill, also gave board members who oversee the LVCVA vague details about his consulting work, records show.

The board approved Ralenkotter’s 18-month contract in August as part of a $455,000 retirement package, even though he had become a target of a criminal investigation into the misuse of airline gift cards bought by the agency.

Since October, the convention authority has paid Ralenkotter $120,000 in consulting fees while he also has been getting $300,000 a year in public retirement benefits, records show.

On top of that, records show the agency spent another $9,000 on three trips Ralenkotter took to Washington, D.C. to attend national travel organization meetings. Most of the money went toward first-class airline tickets.

“This shows a continual contempt for taxpayer money,” said Curtis Kalin, a spokesman for the conservative watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. “They’re flaunting it and indulging in these clearly over-the-top expenditures. It’s offensive to the taxpayers in Las Vegas.”

Hill refused to be interviewed.

In a statement, he said Ralenkotter’s long tenure at the helm of the agency and deep relationships within the travel industry have made him “an important resource and advocate for the destination.”

LVCVA officials defended the first-class fares for Ralenkotter.

The convention authority’s travel office booked Ralenkotter’s trips to Washington under a policy that allows first-class flights on longer trips. The policy says: “Business class, premium economy, or comparable fare will be reimbursed for flights over four hours of scheduled flight time from departure to arrival.”

Airlines consider business and first class comparable, the officials said.

In an interview, Ralenkotter said he had nothing to do with his travel arrangements to Washington.

“I follow whatever they give me relevant to the travel components,” he said.

But Ralenkotter acknowledged that he did not question the first-class seats or the hotel rooms that cost up to $500 a night.

Trips to Washington

Allowing first-class airline tickets is not in step with Hill’s ongoing efforts to change a free-spending culture at the tax-funded agency that flourished under Ralenkotter. The change was prompted by a Review-Journal investigation that uncovered excessive spending and lax control over perks for LVCVA employees and board members.

Ralenkotter took his first trip to Washington as a consultant in November for three days of meetings with Brand USA and the U.S. Travel Association. He is a former board member of Brand USA, which works to bring international tourists to the United States.

The LVCVA paid $2,730 for his round-trip tickets, which included a “premium economy class” flight to Washington and first-class return flight to Las Vegas, records show. His hotel room was paid by Brand USA, but the convention authority reimbursed him $205 for transportation, meals and tips.

In March, the authority bought Ralenkotter $2,070 in round-trip tickets so that he could attend another Brand USA meeting in Washington. Records show the tickets were first class and the agency paid him $1,280 for a two-night hotel stay and other travel costs.

Then in April, Ralenkotter flew first class to Washington for a U.S. Travel Association meeting. The tickets cost the LVCVA $1,998 and the agency also paid him $1,014 for two nights at a hotel and other expenses, records show. Ralenkotter is a former chairman of the national group, which serves as the voice of the travel industry. He has been inducted into the association’s “Hall of Leaders” for his lifetime of tourism contributions.

Consulting details lacking

Ralenkotter’s consulting contract, which guarantees him a total of $270,000 over 18 months, requires that he submit monthly written reports.

Records provided by the LVCVA show that Ralenkotter has turned in only four monthly reports to Hill since October. Ralenkotter has not submitted anything detailing his work for the months of February, March and April. He did not give Hill his January consulting report until April 28, days after the Review-Journal requested copies of his reports.

In all, the reports Ralenkotter submitted totaled 21 pages, eight of which were copies of newspaper stories. He referred to meetings with the marketing firm R & R Partners and other agency associates and gave brief summaries of local and national tourism group meetings he attended.

Ralenkotter provided no in-depth analysis of tourism issues for Hill, records show.

Lori Nelson-Kraft, senior vice president of Communications and Government Affairs, said in a statement that Ralenkotter gave Hill personal “updates and insights” in phone calls and meetings.

From time to time, records show, Ralenkotter also privately emailed Hill and other LVCVA officials surveys from tourism-related organizations showing the latest trends in the business. He also passed along a couple of tips about potential groups interested in coming to Las Vegas.

But Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, said the LVCVA has not been fully transparent about Ralenkotter’s work for the public agency.

“Taxpayers should ask lots of questions, and they should get lots of answers,” Pitney said. “Perhaps he’s contributing enormously to the economic climate of Las Vegas, but people have a right to know what he’s doing.”

Hill promised tighter controls and more transparency after he took the reins of the agency in September. But he presented sketchy accounts of Ralenkotter’s work in lengthy quarterly reports to the LVCVA board about the agency’s overall accomplishments.

Among the highlights, Hill said Ralenkotter:

— Reviewed a “competitive highway bridge program.”

— Provided “history regarding several events during initial budget process.”

— Reviewed and provided input into a “major customer” proposal.

— Served as the agency’s point man for the Las Vegas Aviators move to Summerlin.

— Participated as a member of the Southern Nevada Sports Events Committee.

— Assisted with an analysis and future planning of the Las Vegas Bowl.

— Provided “concepts that could be included” in the city’s hosting of the NFL draft in 2020.

— Reviewed and “offered observations and input” on initial brand research effort.

Earlier investigations

Ralenkotter’s travel as CEO has come under fire in the past year.

He and other former LVCVA executives are facing scrutiny in criminal and ethics investigations over the misuse of $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards the agency bought between 2012 and 2017. Ralenkotter paid back the authority last year for $17,000 in gift cards he used on personal travel and apologized for his conduct. But he denied criminal wrongdoing.

Last month, the Review-Journal reported that Ralenkotter, while running the LVCVA, directed staff to help him obtain free upgrades for family members from British Airways. The agency rewarded the British Airways executive who provided the upgrades with thousands of dollars worth of meals and show tickets on the Strip, records show.

Ralenkotter retired about two months after Las Vegas police opened a criminal investigation into the mishandling of the Southwest Airlines gift cards. Intelligence detectives had made it clear that he was a target of the investigation, along with the agency executive who bought and distributed the cards, former director of business partnerships Brig Lawson.

In March, police executed a search warrant at the LVCVA offices, seizing seven years worth of records relating to the gift cards. The same day detectives arrested Lawson and alleged in a report that he was at the center of a conspiracy to steal the cards.

Lawson, who was released on bond, resigned a month before the police investigation and negotiated a separation package worth more than $100,000. Ralenkotter was CEO at the time.

Police revealed last month that one of Ralenkotter’s most trusted executives, former Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Tull, used $6,000 in Southwest gift cards on personal travel for her family.

Tull paid back the money and resigned without a separation agreement.

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.

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