Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter on Tuesday confirmed a Las Vegas Review-Journal report that he is preparing to retire.
Ralenkotter, 71, told the 14-member authority board he was “having conversations” with board members about stepping down from the publicly funded tourism agency and putting together a financial retirement package.
The Review-Journal reported this month that Ralenkotter, who has headed the authority since 2004, was looking to retire after a year of battling cancer and criticism of the agency’s misspending and cozy relationship with board members.
Until the end of a board meeting Tuesday, he had refused to comment on his plans.
The disclosure came after the board approved recommendations in an audit to tighten internal controls over the agency’s mishandling of $90,000 in gift cards purchased from Southwest Airlines. Auditors said they could not account for more than $50,000 of the cards and learned Ralenkotter and his wife used $16,207 of cards for personal travel.
At the meeting, Ralenkotter talked about his cancer fight, which began in 2010, and its impact on his life, including five surgeries and chemotherapy.
“It changes who you are, what you are and where you are going,” Ralenkotter told the board. “So I had to reassess my future with my family as to what should I do here. Also, how can I beat this?”
He rattled off a long list of accomplishments, including development of the $1.4 billion convention center expansion and the famous Las Vegas marketing slogan, “What happens here, stays here.”
“I’ve accomplished what I wanted to do,” Ralenkotter said. “The vision has been completed. I will always sell Las Vegas. That will never change.”
But he did not provide a retirement date.
After the meeting, three convention authority staffers blocked a reporter seeking to question Ralenkotter about his announcement. They said he would have no further comment.
LVCVA President and Chief Operating Officer Steve Hill, a likely successor to Ralenkotter, said he has been in the loop on Ralenkotter’s retirement discussions but did not want to comment.
“I think Rossi said everything that needed to be said,” Hill explained. “If it’s appropriate for me to have something to say in the future, I’ll do that, but I don’t think it is today.”
On Monday, the Review-Journal reported the audit shows a former authority executive hid the purchase of gift cards by the agency.
In funding requests between 2012 and 2017, Brig Lawson, senior director of business partnerships, said the money was for promotional events and did not disclose it was for the gift cards, the report shows.
Lawson also instructed Southwest employees to submit invoices to the convention authority without mentioning the purchases were for cards.
Attempts to reach Lawson, who resigned in the wake of the scandal, have been unsuccessful, and a Southwest Airlines spokesman has declined to comment on the audit’s findings.
‘There are consequences’
Board member and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee said at Tuesday’s meeting that the board needs to have specific policies to ensure the convention authority takes action against employees who commit misconduct in the future.
“We can’t continue on like this, just kind of hoping it goes away,” he said. “I can tell you right now the Review-Journal is not going away. The public is not going away. We have to have something in place to ensure people understand there are consequences.”
Lee said there also should be policies that allow the board to take action against members who break the rules.
Bill Noonan, who chairs the convention authority board’s audit committee, ordered the gift card audit in February amid a Review-Journal investigation of agency spending and perks for board members and staff.
The newspaper had requested employee gift and travel records more than a year before the board hired the auditors, but the authority did not provide any records of the airline cards. It maintains there was no process in place at the time to track use of the cards.
Both Noonan and lawyer Todd Bice, who oversaw the audit, said they did not believe Ralenkotter and other convention authority executives knew Lawson had bought the cards with taxpayer money. The executives were under the impression that the cards were given to the agency as promotional items, Noonan and Bice said.
Ralenkotter has apologized for his actions and paid back the money to the agency. The authority no longer allows the cards to be used for personal travel.
Noonan, a senior Boyd Gaming executive, urged convention authority employees Tuesday to use good judgment.
“Always remember that we must always be accountable for our decisions,” he said.
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 and Convention Center.