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Former LVCVA exec to pay ethics fine in airline gift-card probe

The former chief marketing officer of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has agreed to pay $8,700 in fines for violating the state ethics law over her personal use of airline gift cards bought by the public agency.

A special review panel last month concluded there was “credible evidence” for the Nevada Commission on Ethics to pursue a complaint alleging Cathy Tull had abused her position of public trust.

The Ethics Commission next week plans to vote on whether to approve a proposed agreement in which Tull acknowledges that she used more than $6,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards for her personal benefit.

“Tull’s actions constitute a single course of conduct resulting in one willful violation of the ethics law,” the agreement states.

She has agreed to pay a $4,500 fine for the violation and an additional $4,200 fine to cover part of the financial benefit she received from her use of the gift cards.

Tull is the second public employee to accept ethics fines in the growing Southwest Airlines gift card scandal.

In January, Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly struck a deal with the Ethics Commission to pay $2,400 in fines for using Southwest gift cards on a trip to Dallas with his daughter while he chaired the LVCVA board.

Yvonne Nevarez-Goodson, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said Thursday that Weekly has until September to pay the fines and so far has given the state only $400.

Nevarez-Goodson declined to discuss Tull’s agreement, and Tull’s lawyer, Mike Pavlakis, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tull, who had been at the LVCVA for 14 years, resigned in April amid the ethics investigation and additional investigations into misspending of LVCVA funds by the Metropolitan Police Department and Review-Journal.

Convention authority executives learned in late 2017 that staff, including former CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, used the gift cards for personal trips. LVCVA officials made the discovery while responding to a records request from the newspaper.

The LVCVA, which has an annual $251 million operating budget, is a tax-funded agency created by the Legislature to promote tourism. It is overseen by a 14-member board of elected officials and gaming executives.

Public-private lines blurred

But the proposed agreement with the Ethics Commission quoted Tull as saying that Ralenkotter operated the LVCVA as a “‘public-private partnership’ and the lines between public and private were blurred.”

Ralenkotter, who resigned last August after 14 years at the helm of the agency, declined Thursday to comment on that assessment.

The Ethics Commission also is investigating Ralenkotter’s personal use of the Southwest gift cards.

He said he provided information to the panel but has yet to hear back.

Tull has become a key figure in the criminal investigation into the misuse of $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards purchased by the LVCVA between 2012 and 2017.

Police revealed this year that Tull used the $6,000 in Southwest cards on 18 flights, mostly for her former husband and two sons. She paid back the LVCVA before she left with more than $110,000 in unused vacation pay, records show.

During an LVCVA audit of the gift cards more than a year ago, the proposed agreement states, Tull told Ralenkotter’s eventual successor, Steve Hill, that Ralenkotter had given her gift cards for personal travel and offered to reimburse the LVCVA.

But Hill, the agency’s chief operating officer at the time, responded that it wasn’t necessary to pay back the money, according to the agreement.

In a statement Thursday, Hill said, “Upon the LVCVA confirming the amount Cathy had used, she did reimburse the organization.”

Ralenkotter retired with a $455,000 financial package amid allegations he used $17,000 in Southwest gift cards on personal travel. He apologized and reimbursed the agency for the gift cards, but denied criminal wrongdoing.

Ralenkotter, now a $15,000-a-month consultant for the LVCVA, and another former agency executive, Brig Lawson, are also central figures in the police investigation.

Lawson, the former director of business partnerships, resigned in May 2018 as auditors were about to reveal that he hid the purchase of 612 Southwest Airlines gift cards in LVCVA financial records.

Tull, who was one of Lawson’s supervisors, contends in the proposed ethics agreement that she did not know the Southwest cards were purchased. Police have alleged that Lawson was at the center of a conspiracy to steal the gift cards, but his lawyer has denied wrongdoing on his behalf.

Auditors last year could not account for more than $50,000 of the cards, but police found the majority of the cards and determined that at least another $15,000 in cards were used on personal travel.

Police arrested Lawson in March after officers searched the LVCVA’s offices, seizing seven years of electronic records related to the Southwest gift cards. Prosecutors have until Aug. 27 to file a criminal complaint against Lawson.

Prosecutors disclosed in court papers last week that they plan to file formal charges against “one or more persons” by that date.

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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