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Former tourism exec strikes ethics deal in misuse of gift cards

Updated November 18, 2020 - 5:31 pm

Brig Lawson, a former executive with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, has agreed to pay $13,881 in state ethics fines for using agency-bought airline gift cards on personal travel.

The LVCVA’s former director of business partnerships will pay $5,000 to the Nevada Commission on Ethics for the “surreptitious nature of his acquisition and improper use of LVCVA property for a personal use.”

Lawson also will pay another $8,881 fine that the Ethics Commission said is twice the value of the Southwest Airlines gift cards that he and his domestic partner and his partner’s parents used for personal trips.

His agreement with the Ethics Commission is the first step toward a plea deal in his criminal case stemming from the misuse of the Southwest gift cards. Lawson is set to appear before Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia on Dec. 10.

The ethics agreement, approved by the commission on Nov. 18, states: “Lawson did not adequately avoid the conflict of interest between his public duties and private interests when he acquired and utilized airline gift cards purchased with LVCVA funds to pay for personal travel … .”

His lawyer, Chris Oram, declined to discuss the ethics deal.

Lawson is the last of four former LVCVA officials to agree to pay ethics fines for their personal use of Southwest Airlines gift cards.

An audit of the tax-funded agency and a Las Vegas police investigation found that Lawson disguised the purchase of $90,000 worth of gift cards with the help of Southwest employees. He then distributed the cards within the agency, and other top executives, including former CEO Rossi Ralenkotter and his chief marketing officer, Cathy Tull, also wound up using the cards on personal travel.

Ralenkotter and Tull paid $24,406 and $8,700 in fines, respectively. Former LVCVA Board Chairman Lawrence Weekly, a Clark County commissioner, paid $2,400 in fines for buying an airline ticket with the gift cards.

Ralenkotter, 73 and Tull, 53, struck plea deals this year that allowed them to avoid prison time on felony theft charges. They pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of “other violations by officers.” Ralenkotter paid a $1,000 fine and Tull a $500 fine.

By pleading no contest to misdemeanors, they did not admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors may have enough evidence to convict them at trial. The theft charges were dismissed.

Lawson is expected to get a similar deal next month. Weekly was not charged in the criminal case.

Ralenkotter’s access to large sums of public tourism dollars allocated to the LVCVA each year and his relationships with the major casinos on the Strip made him one of the most powerful public officials in the state. Tull, who was Lawson’s supervisor, was one of Ralenkotter’s top executives for years.

The criminal case was tied to Ralenkotter’s use of nearly $17,000 in Southwest gift cards on personal travel and Tull’s personal use of $6,000 in cards.

Both former agency executives reimbursed the convention authority before they left.

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

The audit was ordered amid the newspaper’s investigation, which 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.

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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