Updated July 17, 2019 - 6:52 pm
Former Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter handed out airline gift cards bought by the tax-funded agency as holiday gifts for staff in December 2016, a court document shows.
Police investigating the misuse of $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards made the revelation in a sworn affidavit used to obtain a warrant to search the LVCVA offices on March 27.
It is the latest example of lax agency control over the cards that led to criminal and ethics investigations.
Convention authority officials learned that staff, including Ralenkotter, had used the gift cards for personal trips while responding to a Review-Journal records request.
The 61-page police affidavit and lists of people who obtained gift cards were unsealed Wednesday by Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia at the request of the newspaper. Prosecutors overseeing the ongoing criminal investigation objected to the release.
Ed Finger, the convention authority’s chief financial officer who helped expose the mishandling of the gift cards, informed detectives last year that Ralenkotter had given $200 Southwest gift cards to members of his executive team during the holidays in 2016, the affidavit alleges.
“Finger had no reason to be suspicious of this gift as it was not uncommon to have a CEO or president of a large company gift items like this for special events,” the affidavit states.
Police did not identify the other executives who got the Southwest gift cards from Ralenkotter, but one of the top members of his team, former Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Tull, told state ethics investigators that she recalled receiving gift cards from Ralenkotter multiple times, including on holidays.
Lori Nelson-Kraft, the LVCVA’s senior vice president of communications and government affairs, said current CEO Steve Hill told the LVCVA board in April that the agency determined that several of its executives and employees had received Southwest cards as holiday gifts from Ralenkotter and perceived them to be personal gifts.
“Included in that group were LVCVA executives Ed Finger and (security chief) Ray Suppe, who repaid the agency upon learning about how the gift cards were obtained, even after we concluded that repayment of the cards was not the responsibility of our staff,” Nelson-Kraft said.
Ralenkotter said he has not seen the police affidavit and declined to c0mment.
LVCVA records obtained by the Review-Journal show that former agency executive Brig Lawson bought $12,000 worth of $200 Southwest cards for the convention authority in 2016. He resigned last year after auditors said they could not account for more than $50,000 of the $90,000 in cards he purchased for the agency between 2012 and 2017.
Court ruling praised
Following a brief hearing Wednesday, Letizia ruled that prosecutors had not demonstrated a need to keep the affidavit and other search warrant documents sealed amid the criminal investigation.
Maggie McLetchie, who argued on behalf of the newspaper, hailed the ruling afterward.
“The Court’s decision properly recognizes that the public now has a right to the full picture about what exactly has been going on at the taxpayer-funded LVCVA,” McLetchie said. “This corruption never would have caught the attention of Metro or the DA’s office without the Review-Journal’s reporting.”
Ben Lipman, the newspaper’s vice-president of legal affairs and general counsel, added:
“The Review-Journal is pleased the court vindicated the public’s right to access under Nevada law and the First Amendment.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Jay P. Raman said in court that he was willing to make the documents public at the end of August after he files criminal charges, but unsealing the documents now would impede the progress of the ongoing investigation.
McLetchie countered that prosecutors failed to present any evidence to show that the investigation would be harmed.
Letizia sided with the newspaper and ordered the search warrant documents released.
Raman revealed last week that he expected charges against “one or more persons” by Aug. 27. That would include possible charges against Lawson, who police allege was at the center of a conspiracy to steal the Southwest gift cards from the tourism agency. Police allege he hid the purchase of the cards in convention authority financial records.
Lawson has denied wrongdoing through his lawyers.
Both Ralenkotter and Tull have also attracted the interest of police in the investigation. Tull was one of Lawson’s supervisors.
Ralenkotter, who retired in August with a $455,000 financial package, used $17,000 in gift cards on personal travel. He reimbursed the LVCVA and apologized for his conduct. But he denied criminal wrongdoing and remains involved with the convention authority, earning $15,000 a month as a consultant.
Tull resigned in April and paid back the tourism agency for the $6,000 in Southwest gift cards she used on personal travel. She agreed last week to pay $8,700 in fines for violating state ethics law.
On Wednesday, the Nevada Commission on Ethics approved the agreement at a public meeting in Carson City. Tull has two years to pay the fines.
In the agreement, Tull maintains that she did not know Lawson bought the cards with LVCVA money.
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.