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Tourism executives got pricey airline seats for their families

The airline employee who provided the upgrades got show tickets and meals

Taxpayers got the bill

A Review-Journal Investigation

On a September morning in 2012, Cathy Tull, the top marketing executive at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, was pushing for an answer.

She told her assistant to pin down a free British Airways flight upgrade for the wife of then-CEO Rossi Ralenkotter. Tull wanted an update on the status of the tickets for an upcoming meeting with Ralenkotter.

The convention authority’s travel coordinator, Jean Burdett, immediately flagged the request as problematic. “BA’s policy is very strictly adhered to, especially since we are affiliated with Clark County and this would be considered a payoff or a bribe to a government official,” Burdett wrote to Tull’s assistant, suggesting her concerns came from British Airways representatives.

The exchange was one of more than a half-dozen instances between 2012 and 2016 in which Ralenkotter and other executives sought or obtained upgrades for their family members from British Airways, emails obtained by the Review-Journal show.

Authority staff eventually found a way to work around Burdett’s ethical concerns. Simon Brooks, a British Airways senior vice president of sales, provided the upgrades for Ralenkotter’s wife and daughter, internal emails show. Agency staff subsequently gave Brooks thousands of dollars worth of meals and show tickets on the Strip at taxpayer expense, records show.

Agency executives also requested pricier seats from Brooks for Tull’s husband and former Vice President of Marketing Caroline Vidmar and her husband, emails show. The husband of Valarie Segarra, who heads strategic initiatives for the agency, also received a flight upgrade from economy to premium economy, the records state.

The emails detailing agency dealings with British Airways, obtained through a public records request as part of the Review-Journal’s two-year investigation of the LVCVA, shine new light on how Ralenkotter and other executives used business relationships and the convention authority’s resources for personal benefit.

The government agency already is under a criminal investigation into how staff, including Ralenkotter, used Southwest Airlines gift cards bought by the authority for personal travel. The agency hid the purchase of $90,000 in gift cards in promotions it sponsored with Southwest.

The former head of the agency’s business partnerships, Brig Lawson, was arrested on a felony theft charge last month as part of the nine-month investigation. Police also conducted a search of the convention authority’s offices last week, seizing seven years of electronic records related to the gift cards.

Lawson sought and distributed the cards to Ralenkotter and other employees, an outside audit found. Tull used nearly $6,000 of the cards for flights, mostly for her husband and two children, police records show.

The newly released emails show that Lawson also was a central figure in the efforts to get upgrades from British Airways. He resigned in May.

Lawson pushed to use a similar billing pattern to pay for the British Airways upgrades in a partnership contract with the airline, the emails show.

“I want to have a conversation on including these types of requests into a marketing agreement,” Lawson wrote another British Airways executive. He also offered to pay for dinners for British Airways clients in exchange for an upgrade for Ralenkotter’s wife. In response to a Review-Journal request, the agency’s staff found no records of such a deal.

The LVCVA covered more than $50,000 in expenses for British Airways executive training in Las Vegas in 2015, records show.

Liza Ravenscroft, a spokeswoman for British Airways, would not answer questions but provided a statement saying the company is conducting an internal inquiry related to the upgrades.

“We hold our colleagues to high standards of professionalism and we are investigating these allegations,” the statement said. “British Airways operates robust and comprehensive compliance processes.”

Rossi requests

Ralenkotter, who repaid the authority after using $17,000 in Southwest cards on personal travel, has denied that he knew the cards were bought with taxpayer funds. But it is clear in the emails related to British Airways that he was directing agency staff to get the upgrades.

“How are the BA upgrades coming?” he wrote Tull on April 24, 2014, about his wife’s trip to Oslo, Norway.

Ralenkotter, who stepped down in August with a $455,000 retirement package and continues to work as a consultant to the agency, said the personal favors from British Airways were part of the agency’s “relationship building” with the company.

“They extended us that courtesy,” Ralenkotter said. “It has been one of the most successful partnerships the Las Vegas destination has had over the years.”

Ralenkotter, who received more than $800,000 in total annual compensation in his final year leading the agency and currently collects a state pension worth at least $284,000 per year for the rest of his life, declined to discuss the upgrades his wife and daughter received. He said he did not recall anyone indicating whether the upgrades had posed any ethical concerns.

CEO Steve Hill, who succeeded Ralenkotter in September, said in a written statement that he understood agency executives had asked for personal flight upgrades in the past.

“Under my administration, LVCVA policies were reviewed and subsequently revised,” Hill said. “Our staff is aware that this practice is not permissible.”

Ravenscroft, with British Airways, said Brooks still works as a senior vice president at the company, but would not make him available to answer questions.

Burdett and Tull declined to comment through a convention authority spokeswoman.

Lawson’s lawyer Russell Marsh also declined to comment.

‘We owe you!’

It is unclear when the practice of obtaining British Airways upgrades for personal use started at the authority. The Review-Journal obtained emails going back to 2012, the earliest records available under the agency’s records retention policy.

In several instances staff wrote that Ralenkotter requested more expensive airline seats for his wife and daughter, emails show. But the records did not detail the value of the upgrades or whether they yielded business or first class tickets.

It is impossible to determine the value of the British Airways upgrades. But a flight, one way, from Las Vegas to Oslo in mid-May currently costs between $881 and $1029 for economy class depending on the time of flight, a search on the airline’s website shows. The same flight costs about $3,900 for business class and between $4,443 and $10,543 for first class.

Generally, business class is three to six times more expensive than an economy seat and first class is four to eight times the cost, according to Rick Seaney, the CEO of FareCompare.

Lawson became involved in the upgrade discussions with British Airways in February 2013, emails show. At the time, Ralenkotter’s wife, Mary Jo, was planning a trip to London and then Oslo, where her daughter lives. Lawson repeatedly tried to get better seats for Ralenkotter’s wife.

One British Airways staffer declined to provide the upgrades, so Lawson tried to barter with taxpayer funds, records show.

“Is there a way to pay via some sort of marketing sponsorship?” Lawson wrote on Feb. 15, 2013.

When the employee again declined to arrange an upgrade, Lawson took another approach, offering to have the agency pay for a client dinner in exchange for an upgrade for Ralenkotter’s wife. “An invoice for a dinner sponsorship that included an upgraded tix? You could invite your top Vegas clients out? I would just need an invoice. Possible?” he wrote.

The airline staffer suggested that Lawson approach Brooks, so that same day he sent him an email titled “huge favor,” records show.

When Brooks responded that he thought he could help, Lawson wrote: “Awesome … We owe you!”

Over the next three days, Lawson emailed Brooks several times to check on the upgrade, writing on Feb. 19, the day of the flight, that the agency “will definitely return the favor.”

The next day, Lawson wrote how pleased Rossi Ralenkotter was with the upgrade.

“Rossi is raving this morning … Mary Jo had a wonderful, wonderful experience,” Lawson said.

Brooks wrote back that he did not expect anything in return for the upgrade.

“Not a problem, happy to help and all part of the relationship,” he said on Feb. 20, 2013. “No need … for anything in return, really.”

Two weeks later, Lawson again emailed Brooks looking for an upgrade for Mary Jo’s return flights from Oslo. “Rossi pinged me on Mary Jo’s return flight … appreciate anything you can do to upgrade her?” Lawson said.

On March 5, 2013, Ralenkotter emailed his wife the flight confirmation of her return trip and told her he would update her soon about the upgrade.

On March 6, 2013, Brooks emailed Lawson saying the upgrade for Ralenkotter’s wife is “All taken care of.”

Lawson responded two days later: “Rossi was very pleased and you made my life a (million) times easier!”

Rossi Perks

In more than four decades with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, retired CEO Rossi Ralenkotter received significant money and benefits from the taxpayer-funded agency.

‘The bank’

While Lawson was talking to Brooks about the upgrades, Kelly Sawyer, an authority sales executive, was making sure the convention authority would pick up some of the tab during Brooks’ planned vacation to Las Vegas.

Brooks had emailed Sawyer in January 2013, indicating he would be bringing his family.

“I’m coming to Vegas with my 5 piece (wife and 3 kids) for a couple of nights in April and I’m thinking of cool stuff to do with them,” he wrote. “Surely I must have something left in the ‘Bank?’ Let me know before I push my luck.”

Sawyer responded with suggestions like a Cirque du Soleil show, a Grand Canyon helicopter tour and “Tournament of Kings” at Excalibur.

A few months later, Brooks inquired about the perks the agency planned to provide him for the April trip.

“Just checking we are all good for April?” Brooks wrote Sawyer on March 26, 2013. “We are now flying in on American Airlines on the 15th.”

Sawyer responded: “Dear Simon – we have the entire attraction and show community waiting on dates for your five-piece. Let me know and we’ll get you set with “O” at the Bellagio and Heli trip landing in the Grand Canyon.”

Tickets for an April 16 showing of “Mystere” at Treasure Island cost taxpayers $704 and was justified as “Gatwick & Heathrow [airports] Capacity Discussion.” Records show Brooks received five tickets, enough for him and his family.

Five tickets for Brooks the next night for “O” at Bellagio cost $907 and were described in the agency’s spending records as “Client appreciation for top Las Vegas producer,” documents show.

A convention authority spokeswoman said the agency did not pay for the Grand Canyon trip, and confirmed Maverick comped the flight. The convention authority paid the company $15,500 two years later as part of a British Airways Business and Training Forum Sponsorship, records show. Maverick did not return calls seeking comment.

In an April 2014 email, titled “Favor for CEO-Las Vegas CVA,” Lawson asked Brooks for upgraded seats for Ralenkotter and his wife for a personal trip to Norway.

The next day, Ralenkotter wrote Cathy Tull asking how things were going with the British Airways upgrades.

While Brooks was working to find better seats, Lawson thanked him in a May 2 email and said he wanted to get the convention authority to sponsor a sales event in Las Vegas for British Airways.

“Would that be of value?” Lawson asked.

The convention authority paid more than $54,000 for airline executives to conduct training in Las Vegas, records show. That included $13,000 to MGM Resorts for a British Airways retreat in July 2015 and $15,500 to Maverick for a British Airways training forum in 2015, records show. The agency also paid $25,600 to Aria resort for a British Airways marketing sponsorship from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 2015, records show.

In August 2015, Brooks was looking for show tickets and a round of golf at Shadow Creek Golf Course during a return trip to Vegas. Sawyer, the authority sales executive, responded that Brooks would have to stay at an MGM property to play Shadow Creek, but she reserved eight tickets in his name for the 7:30 p.m. “Michael Jackson One” show at Mandalay Bay. Those tickets cost $1,504.

Executive upgrades

Three days later, Lawson reached out to get airline upgrades for the convention authority’s then-Vice President of Marketing Caroline Vidmar and her husband.

“Leave it with me,” Brooks wrote. Vidmar declined comment.

Tull also was actively trying to get upgrades for her spouse and Segarra’s spouse, emails show.

“Perhaps you guys could put your heads together in regards to (Segarra’s husband) and (Tull’s husband’s) return flight Sunday:),” Tull wrote on April 17, 2013, to Lawson and Sawyer. The husbands were upgraded from economy to premium economy and Segarra questioned why the husbands didn’t receive business class seats.

“Only to premium economy not business,” Segarra wrote in an email. “I saw 1 business class seat upstairs open but didn’t see downstairs. The gate manager told me they were only given authorization for 1 one level upgrade,” she said in a second email to Lawson.

In April 2014, Lawson emailed British Airways saying Tull was looking for an upgrade for her sister and a companion from Las Vegas to London. By May, the couple was upgraded from economy to business class, records show.

Then, on Oct. 9, 2016, Lawson emailed Brooks seeking an upgrade for Tull’s husband for a trip to Prague and London. “He’s all set,” Brooks wrote Lawson on Oct. 18, 2016, about the upgrade for Tull’s husband.

A few days later, Brooks received an all-expense paid dinner at Prime Steakhouse that cost $722, emails show.

“We would like to cover the dinner and drinks,” authority business partnership coordinator Tiffany Majors wrote to Bellagio staff. “No need to present him with the receipt, but we will need an itemized copy.”

Sawyer, Segarra and Majors declined comment through an authority spokeswoman.

In 2017, Lawson tried to get another upgrade for Vidmar, the former agency executive, and her husband. In the email, he called her a client.

But the airport manager for British Airways in Las Vegas shut him down, saying the couple could buy upgrades at the gate for $1,000 each.

“Unfortunately, we can no longer offer complimentary upgrades,” she wrote. “I am happy to extend a lounge invitation to your clients here at LAS.”

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 Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0286. Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @ArthurMKane and @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

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