weather icon Clear

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.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
How much do Las Vegas casino CEOs make?
Las Vegas gaming CEOs made anywhere between $1 million and $24 million last year, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ((Las Vegas Review-Journal)
30-year-old Rio needs a little TLC
Nearly 30 years after the Rio opened, the red and blue jewel that helped catapult Las Vegas to a new level with its buffet and nightclub has lost its status along with its shine.
The latest on the Drew Las Vegas - VIDEO
Eli Segall recounts his tour of the Drew Las Vegas, formerly the Fontainebleau, on the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pinball Hall of Fame to move near south Strip
Operators of the Pinball Hall of Fame have been approved to build a new, larger arcade near the south edge of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard near Russel Road. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
National Hardware Show underway Las Vegas
The National Hardware Show kicked off Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Caesars for sale?
Caesars Entertainment Corp. has been swept up in takeover speculation since the company’s share price tumbled last year amid disappointing earnings and concerns over a recession. Amid the decline, hedge funds scooped up shares. Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn began buying shares of Caesars as early as January. Icahn acquired nearly 18 percent by mid-March. In February Icahn called on the Caesars board to study a sale as a way to boost shareholder value.
Las Vegas home prices
Las Vegas home prices grew fastest among major markets in February for the ninth straight month. But amid affordability concerns, the growth rate has slowed down. Southern Nevada prices in February were up 9.7% from a year earlier, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. The last time Las Vegas' price growth fell below 10% was in September 2017, S&P Dow Jones Indices reported.
Free Parking Coming To Wynn
Free parking will come to the Wynn and Encore resorts on May 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Founding Venetian employees talk about 20 years at the Strip resort
The Venetian, which opened May 3, 1999, is celebrating 20 years on the Las Vegas Strip. Seven original employees talk about opening the luxury resort and working there for two decades. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Circa aiming for December 2020 opening
The 1.25-million-square-foot property will have 44-stories and 777-rooms. It will also have a separate nine-story, 1,201-space parking garage.
Boxabl official explains the building concept
Boxabl business development manager Galiano Tiramani shows off a room built by his company. (Blake Apgar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TI/Mirage Tram reopens
The tram that shuttles guests between TI and Mirage reopened this week after being closed for much of 2018.
Las Vegas Convention Center expansion taking shape
Renderings and actual footage show how the Las Vegas Convention Center is evolving.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at Las Vegas convention
Former Starbucks CEO and potential presidential candidate Howard Schultz spoke at the Epicor Insights user conference at Mandalay Bay Convention Center Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Drew Las Vegas to open in the second quarter of 2022
The 67-story Drew Las Vegas is slated to open in the second quarter of 2022 at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NAB Day 1 (Time Lapse)
NAB kicked off at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
National Association of Broadcasters Show shows 1mm thick 8K TV with 22.2 channel digital sound
Japan’s NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories booth featured a 1mm thick 8K TV system used in conjunction with a 22.2 channel digital sound system at the National Association of Broadcasters Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada shoppers react to Smith’s no longer accepting Visa credit cards
On March 1, Smith’s announced that it would no longer be accepting Visa credit cards at any of its 142 supermarkets, including the 45 in Nevada.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission asks how long Wynn executives knew about misconduct
Business reporter Rick Velotta gives an update on the adjudicatory hearing on the suitability of Wynn Resorts to retain its gaming license in Massachusetts.
Henderson app developer part of Startup in Residence
Henderson based developers of the app On Point Barricade are taking part in Startup in Residence, a North America program dedicated to pairing tech companies with governments. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sam's Town employees and customers talk of their love for the iconic casino
Longtime Sam's Town employees and customers love each other and love their casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas apartments rents
Las Vegas’ apartment market has accelerated in recent years. Developers are packing the suburbs with projects, landlords are on a buying spree, and tenants have filled buildings.
William Boyd talks about the birth of Sam's Town
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Sam's Town, William Boyd, executive chairman of Boyd Gaming and son of hotel namesake Sam Boyd, talks about how the casino became one of the first local properties in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
High Roller observation wheel turns five
The world’s tallest observation wheel celebrates it’s fifth year on Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Escape Room Industry Growing In Las Vegas
Escapology employees discuss the growing escape room industry in the U.S. and Las Vegas. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Impact of parking fees on visiting the Las Vegas Strip
There are no data showing a relationship between Strip resort and parking fees and the number of out-of-state visitors to Las Vegas. But there are data showing a relationship between Strip parking fees and the number of local visitors to the the Strip. ‘’As a local, I find myself picking hotels I visit for dinner or entertainment, based on whether they charge for parking or not,”’ said David Perisset, the owner of Exotics Racing. ‘’It is not a matter of money, more of principle.’’ A 2018 survey by the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance found 36.9 percent of Clark County residents reported avoiding parking at Strip casinos that charge for parking. 29.1 percent reported avoiding using any services from a Strip casino that charges for parking.
MGM's sports betting deals
MGM Resorts International signed a sports betting sponsorship agreement with the NBA in July It was the first professional sports league to have official ties with a legal sports betting house. The deal came just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting sports betting in most states. In October, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the NHL. In November, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the MLB. Financial terms of Tuesday’s deal and earlier partnerships have not been announced.
Faraday puts Las Vegas land on the market
Nearly two years after Faraday Future bailed on its North Las Vegas auto factory, the company has put its land up for sale. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein on running the iconic property
Kenny Epstein, owner of the El Cortez Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, talks about Jackie Gaughan mentorship and answers rumors about bodies in the basement at the mob-era casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
LVCVA recommends construction of underground people mover
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced the recommendation for an underground people mover for the convention center. The system would have the potential to expand and connect Downtown and the resort corridor all the way to McCarran. (Michael Quine/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kerkorian estate secretly donated $25M to UNLV medical school

The University of Nevada Las Vegas received a $25 million donation in 2017 for the medical school with the stipulation that the donor’s name remain secret, but the check was distributed so widely around campus that the Las Vegas Review-Journal obtained an unredacted copy.

Constable reform on tap after Review-Journal investigation

Nevada lawmakers want to reform the way constables pay their deputies after a Review-Journal investigation uncovered Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell allegedly inflating deputy pay and expenses and pocketing the difference.