The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Board on Tuesday will consider a lucrative retirement package and 18-month consulting contract for CEO Rossi Ralenkotter after being informed that police so far have not found any evidence of wrongdoing by him in their criminal investigation of the agency.
Ralenkotter’s last day as a full-time authority employee will be Aug. 31. He announced his retirement in a message to board members and employees Thursday, the same day convention authority staff released the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting. Several agenda items call for votes related to Ralenkotter’s retirement and separation compensation.
Ralenkotter, 71, told the board and staff it was the “honor of my life” to serve the tax-funded tourism agency for 46 years.
Las Vegas police detectives hand-delivered a letter on Wednesday to board Chairman Lawrence Weekly and convention authority COO Steve Hill in response to their request for an update on the investigation.
Deputy Chief Shawn Andersen, who is overseeing the investigation, wrote: “At this time, there is insufficient facts to support a criminal case against Mr. Ralenkotter.”
Weekly briefed his fellow board members about Andersen’s letter in an email. He told them police had found “insufficient evidence” to charge Ralenkotter, but Weekly neglected to mention the letter’s context of “at this time.”
On Thursday, Weekly, a Clark County commissioner, said he was pleased with what police had to say about Ralenkotter.
“I’m very happy about this,” Weekly said. “He’s a great guy. He’s a hard worker. He’s done a great job.”
But the police investigation into the mishandling of $90,000 worth of Southwest Airlines gift cards secretly bought by the agency is just beginning. Police have done little beyond picking up records from the convention authority on June 28, the Review-Journal has learned.
Ralenkotter, who will begin collecting state pension benefits worth at least $350,000 per year when he retires, used nearly $17,000 worth of the Southwest gift cards on personal trips, often with his wife. He apologized and reimbursed the convention authority for the cost of the cards after officials learned about the trips. Weekly also used the gift cards to pay for a $1,400 trip with his daughter. Weekly reimbursed the agency for the cost of his daughter’s flight.
Ralenkotter, who is the third-highest-paid public official in the state with annual salary and benefits of about $863,000, has maintained that he did not intend to commit wrongdoing. Brig Lawson, a top convention authority executive who bought the gift cards from Southwest Airlines and distributed them within the agency, resigned earlier this year. An audit revealed that $50,000 worth of Southwest gift cards were missing.
“It is gratifying that Metro concurred with our auditors,” Ralenkotter said in a statement Thursday in response to the police letter.
Attorneys raise concerns
Veteran Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers said they were puzzled by the letter.
“If there’s still an active investigation going on, it makes no sense for the convention authority to be proceeding as if Ralenkotter has been exonerated,” said Thomas Pitaro, who teaches part time at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law. “That letter doesn’t exonerate anyone if they’re still investigating.”
Pitaro’s law partner, Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, D-Las Vegas, urged the convention authority board not to act on any matters involving Ralenkotter’s retirement until police conclude their investigation.
“There should be no moves related to Ralenkotter as long as there’s an open criminal investigation,” said Fumo, a member of the Assembly’s judiciary committee.
Todd Leventhal, a former prosecutor, said of the police letter: “It’s an odd statement to make. What fact about Rossi admitting that he did it and apologizing for it is insufficient? It’s just more of a cover-up.”
Tuesday’s board meeting could result in a sizable payout for Ralenkotter.
One item seeks a discussion on a “separation and release agreement” with Ralenkotter. Another calls for the 18-month consulting contract after Ralenkotter leaves the agency. A third seeks a vote on recommendations by the board’s compensation committee on a performance bonus for Ralenkotter.
A fourth item calls for a discussion on Ralenkotter’s successor. Hill, who left his position as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in January to become the convention authority’s chief operating officer, is a leading candidate to take over for Ralenkotter.
The compensation committee is scheduled to meet before the board meeting Tuesday to discuss the bonus. Ralenkotter got a $208,000 bonus in 2017.
Ralenkotter does not have an employment contract, and the authority board has no legal obligation to pay Ralenkotter a retirement settlement or bonus.
Both the airline gift card audit and the police investigation came after a Review-Journal investigation found excessive convention authority spending on high-end entertainment, gifts for employees and first-class trips overseas for board members.
The Review-Journal also found Las Vegas Convention Center security officers were directed to leave their posts to chauffeur Ralenkotter to various locations, even though Ralenkotter receives a $9,000 annual vehicle allowance. Additionally, the investigation discovered that authority warehouse staff gave away thousands of dollars of iPads, Bose speakers and other gifts intended to promote tourism without noting the recipient or business purpose. Warehouse staff also provided about $6,000 worth of gift baskets to Ralenkotter.
The newspaper requested employee gift and travel records more than a year before the board hired the auditors, but the authority did not provide any records of the airline cards. It maintained that there was no process in place at the time to track usage of the cards.
Ralenkotter has led the LVCVA since 2004. He announced at the board’s June 12 meeting that, after reflecting on his accomplishments and his battle with cancer, he was ready to talk about retirement.
In his message to board members and employees Thursday, Ralenkotter said he was leaving the “best job in the world.”
“Because of the partnership with all of you, and the tireless efforts of the staff I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years, Las Vegas has grown into an international destination that is the envy of tourism marketers around the world,” he wrote.
One authority board member, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, has called for Ralenkotter to step down without a retirement package.
On Thursday, Lee said he had yet to get details of Ralenbkotter’s deal and did not want to comment on it.
But he added, “I’m happy he’s set a retirement date. I’m looking forward to working with his successor after a national search has been completed.”
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.
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4564.