weather icon Partly Cloudy

Southwest Airlines exec tied to misuse of gift cards by LVCVA

A Dallas-based Southwest Airlines marketing executive has landed in the middle of a criminal investigation into the misuse of $90,000 in company gift cards bought by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Eric Woodson helped the LVCVA’s former business partnerships director, Brig Lawson, hide gift card purchases in invoices for promotional events the tax-funded tourism agency sponsored for Southwest Airlines, records obtained by the Review-Journal show.

In return, Lawson showered Woodson with several thousand dollars worth of dinners, concert tickets, hotel rooms and a Grand Canyon helicopter tour, all at LVCVA expense, records show. Lawson also invited Woodson to Las Vegas with other Southwest employees for free group weekends on the Strip during agency-hosted sporting events, costing the convention authority thousands of dollars more.

The records provide new insight into how Lawson quietly purchased 612 Southwest Airlines gift cards between 2012 and 2017 and handed out thousands of dollars worth of the cards to staff for their personal use. During this time, the convention authority, which did not keep track of the cards, spent about $850,000 on promotions building its relationship with Southwest, the busiest commercial carrier in Las Vegas, records show.

Retired CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, now a consultant for the LVCVA, used $17,000 in cards on personal travel, and his top assistant, former Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Tull, bought airline tickets for herself and family members with $6,000 in gift cards, records show. Both executives reimbursed the agency and denied wrongdoing, but Tull agreed to pay $8,700 in fines for violating the state ethics law. Ralenkotter is still facing an ethics investigation.

Lawson’s longtime life partner, Phil Reynolds, who did not work for the LVCVA, bought more than $9,200 in Southwest tickets with the gift cards, court documents show. Reynolds likely got the cards from Lawson, who ended up with some of the airline tickets Reynolds purchased. Reynolds has not answered calls for comment.

Convention authority officials discovered the personal use of the gift cards in late 2017 while responding to a Review-Journal records request. The newspaper has been investigating excessive spending and lax accountability of gifts to staff and board members at the LVCVA, most of which occurred during Ralenkotter’s tenure at the helm.

Theft conspiracy alleged

Police allege in court documents that Lawson was at the center of a conspiracy to steal the gift cards and that he took a series of steps to “mask the purchase” of the cards. Lawson, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned last year before auditors disclosed that they could not account for more than $50,000 worth of the cards. Police eventually located a large share of the missing cards, many of which were also used for personal staff travel.

Three Southwest Airlines' invoices that bill the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority fo ...
Three Southwest Airlines' invoices that bill the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for sponsorships that police allege were used to “mask the purchase” of airline gift cards.  

Lawson directed Woodson and other Southwest employees to include the gift cards, without mentioning them, in the sponsorship invoices, police allege. Lawson used the same language in LVCVA payment requests for the promotions.

Throughout their dealings, Lawson and Woodson also maintained a friendship, frequently chatting about their personal lives and taking vacations together with other friends, emails show.

Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson declined to comment on the contacts between Lawson and Woodson. He would not make Woodson available for an interview.

Prosecutors are on the verge of filing criminal charges tied to the gift card abuse at the LVCVA, a politically connected public agency with a $251 million annual operating budget to promote Las Vegas. A 14-member board, which includes elected officials and gaming executives, oversees the convention authority.

Police executed a search warrant at the LVCVA offices on March 27, seizing seven years worth of emails and other electronic records related to the Southwest gift cards. That same day, detectives arrested Lawson.

Detectives sought permission during the search to examine the computers used by Chief Financial Officer Ed Finger, who did an internal investigation that exposed the gift card misuse, according to the search warrant affidavit. Police also looked to search computers once used by Ralenkotter, Tull, Lawson and former travel coordinator Jean Burdett.

A judge has given prosecutors until Aug. 27 to file formal criminal charges against Lawson, who is now free. The prosecutor handling the case suggested in court papers last month that charges could be filed against multiple defendants by that date. It is unclear who else may face charges.

Police say they are not sure when the alleged gift card scheme was hatched, but an email shows Woodson informed Lawson in June 2012 that the Southwest Airlines cards were available.

“This email looks like the first time the idea of purchasing SWA gift cards was presented to Lawson, and it should be noted it was from this point on the hidden gift card purchases were made,” the search warrant affidavit states.

Purchases disguised

Lawson described the purchases of $10,000 in gift cards in 2012 and $12,000 in 2013 in LVCVA records as simply a “summer travel program,” and Southwest Airlines followed his lead in invoices it sent to the convention authority, records show. Woodson told Lawson which airline employees to contact about the cards.

In 2013, one of those staffers, Laura Lopez, sent Lawson an email with a copy of an invoice that referred to gift cards, prompting Lawson to respond: “Can you change this to the same language that was on last year’s invoice?”

Lopez found the 2012 invoice that used the summer travel program language and asked Lawson, “would you prefer it say this and not gift cards?”

“Yes … that’s perfect,” Lawson replied.

Lopez then resent the invoice with the new wording.

Amid the gift card discussions in 2012 and 2013, Woodson discussed coming to Las Vegas to get together with Lawson several times. On one of those trips, he sought Lawson’s help to get himself and a guest on a list of airline employees invited for weekend festivities at the annual Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon sponsored by the convention authority. Lawson in return planned to visit Woodson in Dallas and asked Woodson to help him get discount fares for a group of LVCVA colleagues taking a personal trip to Lexington, Ky.

In February 2014, Lawson invited Woodson, two other Southwest employees and their guests to a Cher concert at the MGM Grand Garden over the Memorial Day weekend, emails show. A total of 12 people were invited.

Woodson accepted the invitation and the next day asked in an email, “Assume you’ll set me up with hotel and the like?”

A month later, Woodson emailed Lawson pushing for more information. He said he wanted to buy airline tickets for the trip and needed more details. “For example,” he wrote, “Is LVCVA providing hotel for the weekend?” Woodson also asked if he could “obtain/purchase” Cher tickets for two more of his friends.

Expenses mount

Lawson submitted a $2,500 expense report for the Cher concert tickets. Records show the LVCVA also picked up the tab for at least $2,500 in drinks and dinners over the three-day weekend. Lawson described the concert expense as “updates and partnering options with suppliers and airlines.”

A couple of weeks after the concert, Lawson put in a request for $15,000 in gift cards under the cover of another LVCVA-sponsored promotion for Southwest Airlines, emails show.

Woodson took an interest in the request after Lawson expressed frustration with the slow pace of the order.

“I thought this was all taken care of and were ordered?” Woodson emailed another Southwest employee. Later, he wrote the employee, “Can you please tell Brig … and I when he will get the gift cards? We did (the) invoice the week before last.”

The order eventually was filled.

By January 2015, Woodson was planning another trip to Las Vegas to attend an upcoming international rugby tournament promoted by the LVCVA. After Lawson got him tickets, Woodson showed his appreciation in an email.

“I assume tickets are some VIP and parking passes?” he wrote. “When was the last time I told you how much I LUV U?????” Southwest Airlines, which is based at Love Field in Dallas, uses “LUV” in its nationwide marketing campaign to describe its affection for its customers.

Woodson also arranged to have dinner during the rugby tournament with Lawson and Phil Reynolds, emails show.

At the same time, Woodson and Lawson worked out a $54,000 LVCVA sponsorship for Southwest, which secretly included $12,000 in gift cards, records show. This promotion was described as a “hangar party” in the Southwest invoice.

In May 2015, Lawson set up Woodson and a Southwest Airlines lawyer with hotel rooms at the Aria on the day before and day after a vacation trip the two men took with other friends to Zion National Park, records show. The agency paid $770 for the rooms. In an expense report, Lawson said the men were in town “to discuss Las Vegas market network planning and routes.” There was no mention of the Zion trip.

A month later, Woodson emailed Lawson an invoice for another $15,000 in gift cards, again without mentioning the purchase was for the cards. The invoice was titled “international planning summit.”

Vacation buddies

Woodson returned to Las Vegas in September with a group of friends to join Lawson and Reynolds for a week-long house boat vacation on Lake Powell in Arizona, emails show. Woodson and Lawson had been discussing the vacation in group emails for months and had gone on at least one other similar trip in the past.

LVCVA records also list Woodson among a dozen Southwest executives invited to another Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon weekend in November 2015. Dozens of employees from companies that do business with the LVCVA were set up with rooms at the Mandalay Bay, which billed the authority more than $38,400, records show. Woodson’s room cost the LVCVA nearly $500 over three days.

By January 2016, emails show, Lawson negotiated a $54,000 Southwest sponsorship that included $12,000 in gift cards without naming the cards. The invoice Southwest sent Lawson was identified as a “Sponsorship of SWA Deck Event.”

Months later, Lawson invited Woodson and a guest to Las Vegas for a three-day weekend highlighted by a George Strait concert, emails show. Four other Southwest employees and their guests also were invited to the “client appreciation event.”

The weekend package, paid by the LVCVA, included a Mandalay Bay hotel room, tickets to the Michael Jackson ONE show and either a Grand Canyon helicopter tour or luxury massage, records show. Woodson asked to stay an extra night.

LVCVA also included two group dinners on the Strip during the entertainment event, which cost the agency more than $16,000, expense reports show. Lawson submitted $1,763 in expenses for Woodson’s hotel room and Grand Canyon tour.

In January 2017, while negotiating a $57,000 Southwest promotion that included $14,000 in gift cards, Lawson told Woodson to avoid mentioning the gift cards in the invoice.

“Needs to read ‘Sponsorship: 2017 Southwest Airlines Deck Event,” Lawson said in an email.

That wording eventually appeared on the invoice sent to Lawson, records show.

Later in the year, Woodson sent Lawson an email thanking him for another weekend gathering at the rock ‘n’ roll marathon on the Strip.

“Appreciate all the hard work you … put in to make sure we are taken care of and have a good time.” Woodson wrote.

In another email, Woodson said he would send Lawson’s boss a thank you note praising Lawson. Then, he added, “Let me know if there is anything else we should do to express our gratitude.”

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. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.