Police: LVCVA executive’s family used agency’s Southwest gift cards

Updated April 5, 2019 - 2:40 pm

A top Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority executive has been named in the growing criminal investigation into the theft of Southwest Airlines gift cards bought by the agency, a police report obtained by the Review-Journal shows.

Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Tull, a key supervisor under former CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, is identified in the report as using nearly $6,000 in gift cards on 18 flights, mostly for her husband and two sons.

Phil Reynolds, the partner of the leading target in the investigation, former convention authority executive John “Brig” Lawson, purchased 29 flights with more than $9,200 in Southwest cards, the report shows.

Reynolds, an entertainment manager and booking agent, had a contract with the convention authority until the tax-funded agency learned he was in a “dating relationship” with Lawson and saw it as a conflict of interest, the police report says.

The 11-page report, which blacks out names but not all references to Tull and Reynolds, for the first time shows police believe a conspiracy existed to steal the Southwest gift cards. The report also discloses that detectives found a significant number of missing gift cards and now know who used most of them. In total, auditors couldn’t account for $50,000 worth of gift cards.

Together, the 47 flights Tull and Reynolds bought were half of the 94 flights police say were purchased with the once-missing cards.

The report says that either Tull, who was one of Lawson’s supervisors, or someone with her authority approved funding for the agency’s Southwest promotions that masked the gift card purchases.

But police do not know whether Tull had any involvement in the alleged scheme.

“This is not to say that the conspiracy did not exist, just that any evidence of Tull working in concert with Lawson has yet to be discovered,” the report says.

Jackie Dennis, a spokeswoman for the convention authority, said Friday that Tull, Reynolds and Lawson have not reimbursed the agency for any gift card use.

She said the agency has not seen the police report and would not provide an interview with Tull.

But current CEO Steve Hill issued a statement: “The LVCVA continues to fully cooperate with the LVMPD. Due to the ongoing investigation, the LVCVA as an organization is unable to comment on the matter.”

Newspaper investigation

Luke Puschnig, the agency’s legal counsel, told police in June that he discovered the staff’s personal use of the gift cards, which had been hidden in financial records, while he was reviewing documents for a Review-Journal records request. Police launched the criminal investigation in June after seeing the newspaper’s stories detailing an audit that described the misuse of the gift cards at the convention authority, the report says.

Last week, intelligence detectives arrested Lawson, who oversaw the authority’s business partnerships, on a felony theft charge at his home. He was taken into custody on the same day detectives searched the convention authority offices, seizing seven years’ worth of electronic records related to the Southwest Airlines gift cards.

Both the police report and a copy of the search warrant obtained by the Review-Journal show police consider Lawson the central figure in the alleged theft conspiracy.

Lawson concealed the Southwest purchases in authority financial records promoting the airline over a six-year period, and authority executives told police there was “zero accountability” of the cards, the report alleges.

The search warrant says police wanted “Communications between John Lawson and any co-conspirator(s) regarding the motive, plan, co-conspirators or any other details related to the act of acquiring Southwest Airlines gift cards under false pretenses for use with unauthorized travel.”

Search warrant

Police also sought billing and financial records related to the people who used the gift cards, according to the search warrant. A list of those people was attached as an exhibit to the warrant, but it is sealed from the public amid the ongoing investigation.

Police spokesman Larry Hadfield declined to comment Friday, citing the open investigation.

The police report alleges Lawson “fraudulently” purchased $90,000 in Southwest Airlines cards with tax dollars between 2012 and 2017 and used them “as gifts to promote himself positively to friends, co-workers and supervisors.”

Lawson “committed theft when he took custody of the gift cards, which were the property of the LVCVA, and dispersed them as he saw fit for his own financial and personal gain,” the report alleges.

In some cases, Lawson was assisted in disguising the purchases by Southwest Airlines marketing employee Eric Woodson, who had a personal friendship with Lawson, the report alleges. The two “planned vacations together.”

Lawson’s lawyer Russell Marsh declined comment.

“We have not seen the arrest report or any of the search warrant materials, so I cannot comment at this time,” he said.

Woodson could not be reached for comment.

Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said, “We continue to cooperate with authorities on this investigation. We have no further comment at this time.”

‘Metro needs to do its job’

Police also reveal in the report that Ralenkotter, who is under investigation for his use of about $17,000 in gift cards on personal travel, was getting a steady share of the cards from Lawson. The cards Ralenkotter used were “somewhat sequential,” indicating that he took possession of the cards as Lawson purchased them, the report says.

In interviews with auditors, Ralenkotter denied he knew the cards were purchased. But he publicly apologized for his conduct and paid back the agency.

“I’m not going to comment on the investigation,” Ralenkotter said Friday. “Metro needs to do its job. And that’s it.”

Lawson told auditors that he did not know Ralenkotter was using the cards for personal travel. Lawson insisted on having Tull present during his interview with auditors, the report says.

According to the search warrant, police also were looking for financial documents showing that both Ralenkotter and Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly reimbursed the convention authority for airline tickets purchased with the gift cards. Weekly used $1,400 in gift cards for a trip to Dallas with his daughter in 2016 while he chaired the agency’s board. He paid back $700 and agreed to pay $2,400 in state fines in January for violating ethics law and the public’s trust.

The district attorney’s office has not yet filed a criminal complaint against Lawson, who is to make his first appearance in court on April 30.

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. Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0286. Follow @JGermanRJ and @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Review-Journal reporter Brian Joseph contributed to this story.

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