Mother of worker killed at Orleans hopes investigation isn’t just ‘for show’

The mother of a maintenance worker who died last year in a sewer at The Orleans welcomed news Friday that the Nevada attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into the case.

“I am guardedly excited,” Debi Koehler-Fergen said. “And I say ‘guardedly’ because I need to know they’re really serious about this and not just doing it for show.”

A spokeswoman for the attorney general confirmed an investigation by the office’s Public Integrity Unit but did not provide details of the probe into the Feb. 2, 2007, incident that killed two workers and nearly killed another.

“I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” Nicole Moon said.

The Public Integrity Unit investigates allegations of misconduct by state employees and officials.

Travis Koehler and Richard Luzier died in the incident at the hotel loading dock. Co-worker David Snow survived despite being unconscious inside the sewer pit for more than 45 minutes. Doctors had given him just a 10 percent chance to live.

“The reason I’m here is to make sure the truth be known,” Snow said.

Snow said he and Koehler were ordered into the sewer to save Luzier after he was overcome with toxic gases and fell in. None of the workers were trained or equipped to perform work in sewers.

An investigation by the Nevada Occupational Health and Safety Administration blamed the deaths on a lack of a safety culture and training at Boyd Gaming properties, and the lead investigator recommended willful violations, which carry the stiffest penalties. The citations later were reduced to serious violations in an agreement with Boyd that brought one of the largest fines in state history and an unprecedented overhaul of the company’s safety program.

The investigator and Boyd’s top safety officer quit over the decision, and federal OSHA officials are reviewing the case.

Koehler-Fergen and Snow believe top government administrators pressured OSHA to reduce the violations. They believe the violations should be willful and the $185,000 fine should be increased.

A Boyd spokesman denied anyone with the company used political influence. In fact, OSHA and Boyd went to great lengths to reach the agreement to change safety programs not only at Boyd properties but throughout the casino industry, Rob Stillwell said.

“At the end of the investigation, they will find out what they’ve always known: that our company has been an important part of this community for several decades and has a long history of doing the right thing and always will,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Business and Industry could not be reached for comment on the probe.

However, in an e-mail reply to written questions earlier this week, Elisabeth Shurtleff said administrators, including department director Mendy Elliott, took no part in talks between OSHA and Boyd.

Elliott sat in on a meeting with OSHA and Boyd representatives to discuss the recommended citations, but she was not involved in any negotiations to reduce the violations, Shurtleff wrote. Neither was Roger Bremner, administrator of the Division of Industrial Relations, which includes OSHA, she wrote. Bremner did approve the final recommendation for serious violations because the willful violations required “state-of-mind proof,” she wrote.

Elliott later briefed Gov. Jim Gibbons’ deputy chief of staff, Dianne Cornwall, on the case, Shurtleff wrote.

Elliott attended the closing conference meeting only because Boyd lawyer Sal Gugino asked her to, she wrote.

However, Stillwell said Gugino never asked for Elliott’s attendance. She came to the meeting only after Gugino told OSHA’s lawyer that the company’s top lawyer, Executive Vice President Brian Larson, would attend, he said.

Snow and Koehler-Fergen said they hoped the probe would uncover what happened.

“They can’t keep sweeping it under the carpet,” Koehler-Fergen said.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

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