weather icon Mostly Cloudy

LVCVA hearing in gift card criminal case delayed due to virus

Updated March 16, 2020 - 4:55 pm

Update: A hearing set for March 17 to determine whether police obtained “privileged” information about former tourism boss Rossi Ralenkotter has been continued to May 4 because of concerns about the coronavirus, according to defense lawyers in the case.

The delay is also expected to push back the March 26 preliminary hearing in the case, the lawyers said.

The previous story:

The criminal case against former high-ranking Las Vegas tourism officials over the misuse of Southwest Airlines gift cards is heating up after months of little activity.

Ed Finger, the chief financial officer for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, is among five witnesses subpoenaed to testify March 17 at a hearing before Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia. The agency’s former legal counsel, Luke Puschnig, also has been subpoenaed.

Both men exposed the mishandling of $90,000 in Southwest gift cards the tax-funded convention authority purchased between 2012 and 2017, and then provided key documents to Las Vegas police.

The investigation was prompted by Review-Journal stories disclosing audit results that also found the convention authority could not account for more than $50,000 worth of gift cards.

Finger and Puschnig are expected to be questioned under oath about their roles in cooperating with police against their former boss, retired longtime CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, the chief defendant in the high-profile case.

The hearing was sought by Ralenkotter, who wants to stop prosecutors from introducing “privileged” information from the mass of records police obtained from the LVCVA during the investigation. Ralenkotter, accused of unlawfully using roughly $16,000 in gift cards on personal travel, faces felony theft and misconduct charges.

Letizia has set a preliminary hearing on March 26 to determine whether Ralenkotter, former LVCVA marketing officials Cathy Tull and Brig Lawson and former Southwest Airlines executive Eric Woodson all should stand trial in the alleged theft of the gift cards.

Ralenkotter and his defense lawyer, Anthony Sgro, contend that LVCVA officials and Eide Bailly, the accounting firm that did the audit, may have improperly turned over privileged documents to police.

“At the outset, it is important to note that there is now definitive evidence that attorney/client materials were seized,” Sgro wrote in court papers.

Sgro is pushing police to reveal how they learned about a private 2017 conversation between Ralenkotter and Puschnig in which Puschnig told the CEO that his personal use of the gift cards was “inappropriate and needed to stop.” Sgro suggested Ralenkotter’s attorney-client privilege was violated.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Scow filed court papers opposing the March 17 hearing, arguing that Sgro did not present enough evidence to justify holding it.

“The overly broad request to suppress all information obtained in violation of the attorney-client privilege appears to be an attempt to hold an evidentiary hearing to fish for information,” Scow wrote.

But in court last week, Letizia said she planned to go forward with the hearing.

Sgro told the judge that Finger had indicated he would be “generally unavailable,“ but would show up if his testimony is required.

“Ed and the LVCVA continue to cooperate wherever it’s been requested or needed,” LVCVA spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft said.

Puschnig’s lawyer, David Clark, said his client would attend the hearing, but he declined further comment.

An Eide Bailly executive also has been subpoenaed to testify, as well as two Las Vegas police officers, including the lead detective in the investigation.

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.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.