Police arrested a key target in the criminal investigation into the misuse of Southwest Airlines gift cards bought by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Brig Lawson, the authority’s former director of business partnerships, was taken into custody on a felony theft charge Wednesday night and later released on a $10,000 bond, according to Las Vegas Justice Court records.
Lawson’s arrest is the first in an investigation that started nine months ago and triggers questions about whether he could assist detectives.
It also comes on the heels of a police search at the agency’s offices Wednesday afternoon. Detectives seized emails and other electronic records related to the gift cards dating back seven years, the length of time the agency retains its digital records.
Lawson, who resigned from the authority in May, bought $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards for the convention authority between 2012 and 2017, an audit found. He hid the purchases in a series of promotions the agency sponsored for Southwest Airlines and distributed the cards within the agency.
The audit found in June that the tax-funded authority did not properly track the gift cards and more than $50,000 in cards were missing.
Former authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter was among those who received Southwest cards from Lawson. The audit quoted the agency’s travel coordinator as saying Ralenkotter kept gift cards in his desk drawer.
Ralenkotter, who retired and became a consultant for the agency on Aug. 31, admitted using $17,000 in cards for personal travel and reimbursed the agency. He publicly apologized for his conduct, and the board approved recommendations from auditors to tighten controls over the gift cards.
Ralenkotter, who has maintained that he did not know the cards were purchased with tax dollars, has denied any criminal wrongdoing. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The police action comes a week after the Review-Journal reported that Ralenkotter pushed for $10 million in tourism funds to expand a police substation on convention authority property while detectives were investigating the agency.
During the initial police visit in June, detectives made it clear to convention authority executives that Lawson and Ralenkotter were targets of the theft investigation, knowledgeable sources said.
Lawson’s defense lawyer, Russell Marsh, declined to comment about the case on Thursday, and Lawson could not be reached by phone.
The top leaders of the authority’s board pledged cooperation with police.
“I think Metro is doing what they said they were going to do,” said board chair Larry Brown, a Clark County commissioner. “They’re going to do a very comprehensive investigation. We support them 100 percent.”
Vice chair Bill Noonan, who also chairs the board’s audit committee, added: “We’ve got to cooperate fully with Metro and provide them any information that they request. It’s in their hands.”
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.