Las Vegas police searched convention authority offices and arrested a key former executive to determine whether the agency’s retired CEO Rossi Ralenkotter knew that airline gift cards he and other staff used for personal trips were purchased with public money, a knowledgeable source said.
Metro police detectives arrested Brig Lawson, the former director of business partnerships at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, on a felony theft charge Wednesday night. He was released Thursday morning on a $10,000 bond, according to Las Vegas Justice Court records.
Investigators have no evidence that Ralenkotter knew that Lawson had bought the Southwest Airlines gift cards with public funds before using $17,000 of them for himself, his wife and other relatives, the source said.
Ralenkotter said Friday that he was not aware the Southwest cards had been purchased with public funds until he talked with top agency executives in 2017. The cards were bought between 2012 and 2017.
“I was totally transparent with that whole thing from the beginning,” he said.
Convention authority staff had reviewed the records weeks or months before police seized them and found no evidence tying Ralenkotter to the purchase of the cards, another source said. The payments for the cards were hidden in promotional events for Southwest Airlines, auditors said.
Police, who have obtained Southwest Airlines records that show who used the gift cards, hope Lawson can assist in the investigation.
Lawson and his lawyer, Russell Marsh, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Audit sparks investigation
The police investigation started after an outside agency audit showed Lawson bought $90,000 worth of Southwest gift cards by hiding them in promotional events with the airline, records show. The audit was prompted by a series of Review-Journal stories that uncovered questionable spending on travel and alcohol at the agency, rides provided to top officials by convention security staff and lax oversight of expensive gifts at the authority’s warehouse.
Police first visited the agency about nine months ago looking for records, and informed convention authority executives at the time that Ralenkotter and Lawson were targets of the probe. Police returned Wednesday with a search warrant seeking seven years of emails and other electronic data from the backup server.
Of the $90,000 in gift cards, agency staff determined that $20,000 was used for legitimate travel and $20,000 was used by staff and a board member for personal travel, including the $17,000 Ralenkotter repaid.
Agency staff could not track down about $50,000 worth of the gift cards, but police obtained information about those trips through a subpoena served on Southwest Airlines.
Ralenkotter retired in August with a nearly $300,000 pension and a $455,000 retirement package, including an 18-month consulting deal with the agency. Police issued an unusual letter before Ralenkotter’s retirement saying they had no evidence he had done anything wrong “at this time.”
Ralenkotter sought a meeting with Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo a month after he learned he was a target of the investigation to discuss a new substation on convention grounds, the Review-Journal reported last week. The meeting, which happened in October, raised conflict-of-interest questions, according to experts.
But the ongoing investigation apparently switched into top gear this week as police arrested Lawson and served the search warrant on agency staff.
Those records could show if Lawson and Ralenkotter exchanged any emails about the gifts cards.
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.