Prosecutors expect to charge “one or more persons” by the end of August in a criminal investigation into misuse of airline gift cards bought by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a court filing shows.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Jay P. Raman revealed the plans last week while voicing opposition to a Review-Journal petition seeking to unseal documents related to a search warrant executed at the LVCVA offices on March 27. Police at the time were looking for additional evidence that agency executives mishandled $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards.
That same day, police arrested former convention authority executive Brig Lawson, alleging that he was at the center of a conspiracy to steal the Southwest gift cards from the tax-funded agency. In April, Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia gave police until Aug. 27 to file formal charges against Lawson, who is out of custody.
“Based upon discussions with the investigators, barring unforeseen circumstances, we should be able to charge parties with criminal culpability on the August 27 date,” Raman wrote.
This is the first time that authorities have said multiple defendants could be charged in the yearlong investigation.
Raman said unsealing the search warrant documents while the investigation is active would impede its progress, and he urged Letizia to keep the documents secret.
“The government’s interest in confidentiality clearly outweighs the LVRJ’s need to learn as much as possible about the LVCVA investigation,” he said.
The prosecutor said he tried to strike a deal with the Review-Journal to drop its petition in return for making public the search warrant documents after charges are filed. But the newspaper declined the offer, he said.
Ben Lipman, the Review-Journal’s vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, said he is hopeful the judge will allow the release of “these important documents.” The newspaper is seeking a police affidavit that provided probable cause for the search warrant and exhibits that list the names of people who used the Southwest Airlines gift cards.
“It is our belief the public is entitled under Nevada law and the First Amendment to transparency in this process and entitled without delay to see the documents currently being kept secret,” Lipman said.
Letizia set a hearing for July 17 on the newspaper’s petition.
The investigation has focused on Southwest gift cards that Lawson bought between 2012 and 2017 while he was the LVCVA’s executive director of business partnerships. Other agency executives, including former CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, have attracted the interest of police in the investigation.
Ralenkotter, who retired in August, used $17,000 in gift cards on personal travel. Before he stepped down, Ralenkotter reimbursed the LVCVA for the cards and apologized for his conduct. But he denied criminal wrongdoing and remains involved with the authority, earning $15,000 a month as a consultant.
Convention authority executives learned about the personal use of the gift cards while responding to a records request from the Review-Journal in its ongoing investigation, which has found excessive spending at the public agency.
Lawson resigned in May 2018 as auditors were preparing to disclose that they could not account for more than $50,000 worth of the Southwest gift cards. His lawyer contends that Lawson did nothing wrong.
Police have since alleged that Lawson concealed the gift card purchases in agency financial records and distributed them for his own personal gain. Police have found the majority of the missing gift cards and determined that at least an additional $15,000 worth were used on personal trips, records show.
Cathy Tull, the agency’s former chief marketing officer, used nearly $6,000 in gift cards on personal travel, mostly for her family, police alleged.
Tull, one of Lawson’s supervisors, paid back the agency and resigned in April. But she left with more than $110,000 in unused vacation pay.
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.