weather icon Mostly Cloudy

LVCVA strengthens travel, gift card policies after controversy — VIDEO

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority tightened ethics, travel and gift card policies after several employees, including former CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, were caught using airline cards for personal trips.

The agency’s new CEO Steve Hill imposed the changes in response to a series of Las Vegas Review-Journal stories that found tens of thousands of tax dollars spent on alcohol, lax inventory control for gifts handed out from the agency’s warehouse, show tickets distributed for personal use and other questionable expenditures.

Hill said Tuesday the agency has to abide by government regulations while dealing mostly with private businesses, which have more latitude to spend on travel and perks. Authority employees need clear guidelines about what is inappropriate spending.

“The goal of the policy review is to make sure our policies follow the law and the regulations that were in place and any ethical requirements as well,” he said.

Card controversy

Board member Lawrence Weekly had to pay $2,400 in fines for breaking a state ethics law after authority staff used airline gift cards to book a trip for his daughter and he failed to reimburse the ticket.

He called for clearer rules to avoid future problems.

“I went through this in a trial by fire,” he said.

Hill told Weekly that staff should have sent him an invoice to reimburse the travel.

“The way we handled your plane ticket, we let you down,” Hill said. “I apologize on behalf of the organization for that.”

The audit said a former employee hid the costs of the gift cards in payments for special events and then used the cards without oversight. Hill said it is unlikely the agency will ever purchase travel cards under his administration.

The new policy states that gift cards can not be used for personal expenses. Finance staff must log any gift cards provided by external business partners by recording the date, serial number, value, who distributed the card and the business purpose for the travel. The cards will be kept in a secure area, the policy says.

After the audit was released, Ralenkotter reimbursed the agency about $17,000 for Southwest Airlines gifts cards he used on personal travel. Weekly also repaid the authority for his daughter’s ticket. Police are investigating the use of as much as $50,000 in missing Southwest cards bought with taxpayer dollars, sources said.

Travel rules

While the policies outlined in Tuesday’s meeting only impact staff, the LVCVA board also changed its policies after the Review-Journal investigation.

But one newly appointed board member quickly exceeded recommended travel rules.

Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore took four international trips in less than a year after the board’s policy committee limited international board travel to one annual trip. The policy did allow board members to travel more than that with approval from the chairman, which Fiore received from Weekly.

The Review-Journal reported the trips last month. Fiore defended her travel at Tuesday’s meeting as important for bringing tourists to the area and warned against acquiescing to outside pressure to change policies.

“Do not ever, for the LVCVA, allow a newspaper to dictate our activities for what we do and what we spend,” Fiore said. “We are very proud of what the LVCVA does and will not cow down to fake news.”

The staff’s new travel policy allows alcohol at client meals, but alcohol without clients can only be reimbursed with executive approval. And alcohol in room service or local meals will also not be reimbursed, the policy says.

Newly elected board chairman Larry Brown, a Clark County commissioner, said he would like the policy committee to revisit the travel rules for board members.

“I think clarity has come up a few times and I think it’s important that whatever policy comes out of that committee and is brought before the entire board just brings clarity,” he said.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0286. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter.

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