Updated January 25, 2019 - 9:43 am
A Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board member traveled around the world last year at the agency’s expense amid growing scrutiny over inappropriate spending and perks for its board.
Michele Fiore, a Las Vegas city councilwoman who joined the board in March, has taken four international trips since May despite recent policy reform aimed at limiting board member travel to one trip a year, records show.
Fiore received permission for the additional trips from then-board Chairman Lawrence Weekly under an exemption that requires the chairman’s approval.
But in just seven months, records show, Fiore spent about $33,000 in taxpayer funds, accounting for nearly half of all board travel since 2016 and raising questions about whether she violated the intent of the policy. Fiore’s travels appear to show a disconnect between a push to reform the agency under a new CEO and a board that has enjoyed expensive gifts, VIP treatment at LVCVA-sponsored events and worldwide travel.
To help fund some of the trips, Fiore also used campaign contributions, drawing concerns about whether the spending potentially violated campaign laws that prohibit the use of donations for personal expenses.
Fiore said her trips to Brazil, Japan, Singapore and Spain last year were needed to help sell Las Vegas as a tourist destination. She said she plans to take more trips funded by the LVCVA, including visiting all of the agency’s offices overseas.
“I went into this as knowing this was a traveling board,” she said in an interview. “We are in 14 countries and, just for the record, I plan on going to all 14 countries.”
Fiore allowed only 15 minutes for the interview, and she left before answering all of the questions.
Newly installed LVCVA board Chairman Larry Brown, a Clark County commissioner, said he understands Fiore worked hard on her trips, but he would like to further tighten the travel policy. He declined to say whether his push for stricter reform was prompted by Fiore’s trips, most of which he learned about after she had taken them.
“I think we should be more efficient in board travel,” Brown said. The policy should more clearly define what qualifies as appropriate travel, he said.
Brown did not provide details but said the board’s policy committee would be responsible for re-examining travel practices. Fiore is a member of the committee.
Her travels come at a time when the convention authority is trying to move past the abrupt end to the long tenure of Rossi Ralenkotter, the agency’s former president and CEO. Ralenkotter led the agency to unprecedented political influence. He retired in August amid a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation into the agency’s travel, expenses and lax board oversight. The authority is facing police and ethics commission investigations into the secret purchase and personal use of Southwest Airlines gift cards under Ralenkotter’s leadership.
Ralenkotter’s successor, Steve Hill, has been trying to change the free-spending culture that allowed executives and board members to benefit from an array of perks.
The 14-member board, which includes eight local elected officials and six business and casino executives, oversees spending at the tourism agency. It has a $251 million annual operating budget, funded mostly from hotel room taxes. Spots on the board have long been coveted by elected leaders for prestige, perks and access to the state’s powerful gaming industry.
After taking the reins in September, Hill said the authority’s business practices had not kept up with the times and the agency needed to do “what it takes” to regain the trust of the community. An agency spokesperson declined to comment on Fiore’s travel.
Lawmakers may also weigh in on what happens at the LVCVA.
Nevada Assembly Deputy Minority Whip Chris Edwards, who will propose legislation for a state inspector general to ferret out waste and corruption, said an IG could look into the number and cost of Fiore’s trips and whether Weekly should have approved the travel.
Weekly “didn’t do his job and that’s what happens when leadership doesn’t do their jobs,” said the Las Vegas Republican. “Stuff like this pops up.”
Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, D-Las Vegas, agreed.
“I can see going on one trip to understand the process and see what staff is doing,” Fumo said. “But going on four in less than a year appears to be excessive and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Fiore replaced Las Vegas Councilman Ricki Barlow on the board. He resigned from office in January and pleaded guilty a month later to a felony wire fraud charge for misusing campaign funds.
By May 27, Fiore was in a $7,448 business-class seat, flying to Sao Paulo, where she spent three days with staff prior to the launch of a new airline route to Las Vegas. The hotel cost $1,158.
In September, Fiore flew to Tokyo for a five-day tourism exposition, which cost taxpayers a total of $7,885 including a $5,745 flight, records show.
She spent an additional two days at the Chinese resort town of Sanya on Hainan Island just off the mainland’s southern coast. Media outlets have reported that the Chinese government is considering legalizing gambling in Sanya, which is about about 2,200 miles from Tokyo. Fiore said she traveled there on her own money to meet the mayor and discuss tourism.
In an October newsletter to constituents, Fiore said: “Our team stayed at the MGM resort, had meetings, tours, more meetings and about six hours of sleep, then got back on a plane.”
When asked whether MGM Resorts International had anything to do with Fiore’s trip, company spokesman Alan Feldman said: “Ms. Fiore must have made all arrangements on her own. No requests were made of MGM.”
Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke declined to comment about the China trip. He said the city only tracks travel paid by the city.
Three weeks after Fiore returned to Las Vegas, she was back in business class, on her way to spending five days at a trade show in Singapore. The trip cost $9,071 including a $7,000 flight.
She upgraded her $297 room at the Marina Bay Sands, adding a $73 a night “upsell” charge, the hotel receipt shows. The hotel bill for the trip was about $2,000, records show. She said the upgrade was necessary because the hotel did not have any cheaper rooms ready and she had to get ready for a meeting after the long flight.
Fiore ended up reimbursing the convention authority $1,300 for three days of expenses in Singapore because it wasn’t part of the LVCVA trip.
At the end of November, Fiore went to a three-day trade show in Barcelona. Her business-class flight cost more than $5,100 and hotel and meals nearly $2,000. She paid back the authority $500 to change the flight so she could spend additional personal days enjoying the city and going to a spa, records show. She said she took personal time in Barcelona but she also flew to Paris to meet with a businessman who proposed technology that could save the city millions of dollars in energy costs.
“When I’m in Barcelona if I have a few extra hours I want to go get a massage — great for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t work 20 hours and if you don’t think I work enough … you’re barking up the wrong tree,” she said. “What I did on my personal time is none of your business.”
But good government experts say high-priced travel is excessive.
“It looks bad and undermines public confidence,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. “Voters don’t like public officials to take junkets. In this case, in light of the new travel policy, the appearance problem is even more serious.”
In 2017, after a series of Review-Journal stories questioning the agency’s business practices, the board limited board member travel to one trip outside Clark County annually. The policy says travel is intended to educate board members on LVCVA methods and processes: “Direct observation is the most effective method for acquiring such knowledge.”
The LVCVA’s policy committee paid the accounting firm Piercy Bowler Taylor & Kern $15,000 to recommend reforms after the Review-Journal found about $60,000 in tax money spent on board travel, $30,000 for Tiffany bracelets for staff and $697,000 for alcohol in a three-year period.
Thomas Donohue, a principal at the CPA firm who is handling the LVCVA account, said he would bring up Fiore’s travels with auditors.
“My intent is to let the audit committee know of the allegations of waste and the trips,” he said.
Weekly, the LVCVA’s former chairman who approved Fiore’s trips, had his own travel problems. Weekly was forced to pay back $700 in April for using Southwest Airlines gift cards purchased by the agency on a personal trip in 2016 to Dallas with his daughter. He agreed to pay $2,400 in fines for violating the Nevada ethics law with that trip. Since 2016, he has taken five LVCVA trips, including one to China, that have cost taxpayers more than $19,000, records show.
Weekly said he relied on information from LVCVA staff about the purpose of board travel when he decided whether to approve trips.
In Fiore’s case, top sales executives submitted written requests to Weekly for her trips to Japan, Singapore and Spain. The executives provided an itinerary and explanation of the overseas events, records show.
“If you want to go on a trip, hey, God bless you,” Weekly said. “Bring back some good information with you. What else can I say?”
Fiore also used more than $2,000 in campaign funds to pay for her travel expenses, campaign records show.
State law prohibits candidates from spending campaign money on “typical personal and household expenses” like food, clothing and utilities, but the secretary of state’s office said the law is vague.
Fiore spent campaign funds at the hotels where LVCVA staff stayed in Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Barcelona. She also used campaign funds for cabs, bar tabs and other purchases in those cities, records show.
Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley declined to discuss Fiore’s trips because he did not know about the specifics, but said a candidate cannot use campaign funds to reimburse personal travel expenses.
“If it’s just a personal trip not associated with duties they have as a public officer or elected official, that could potentially be a problem,” he said.
Fiore said all of her reimbursements from campaign funds were related to her work as a city councilwoman. Fiore said she could have reimbursed more from her campaign funds but she forgot some of the expenses. She said she may take additional reimbursements from her campaign funds.
Fiore emerged as one of Ralenkotter’s biggest supporters as he faced questions in his final months on the job about his personal use of Southwest Airlines gift cards.
Ralenkotter took an early retirement after he acknowledged that he paid back about $17,000 for personal flights booked with the agency’s Southwest Airlines cards between 2012 and 2017. Auditors were unable to account for more than $50,000 of $90,000 in cards the authority purchased.
Fiore, a former state assemblywoman, was among those who praised Ralenkotter in August, as the board approved his $455,000 separation package. In a combative interview Monday, Fiore said the Review-Journal should stop criticizing the board.
“We bring 42 million visitors a year here to this city and I’m very proud of it, very proud of the LVCVA and and frankly not so thrilled about you attacking other peer members on the LVCVA,” she said.
Fiore declined to answer a question about her experience and qualifications to market Las Vegas on the global stage.
Instead, she responded with her own question: “What’s your qualifications to be in my sight?”
Fiore then cut short the interview and stormed out of the room.
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 and Convention Center, which competes with the LVCVA-operated Las Vegas Convention Center. Las Vegas Sands operates the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.