October 3, 2007 - 9:00 pm
On the heels of a two-month Review-Journal investigation, Clark County building officials are belatedly investigating whether Harrah’s Entertainment remodeled 17 floors of the Rio’s Ipanema guest tower without obtaining proper permits or safety inspections.
Since Thursday, the county’s Department of Development Services has issued six notices of violation for work on the Ipanema Tower. Most of the work took place in 2005, several floors at a time.
Jan Jones, a Harrah’s executive, said guest rooms will be closed to accommodate reinspection by the county.
"As many rooms will be offline as needed to facilitate the inspection process," she said late Monday. She did not know how many rooms were closed.
The newspaper spent two months researching the tower’s construction history and interviewing people who had worked on the remodeling project. The paper also conferred with private construction experts before approaching the county and the company with reports that the remodeling work bypassed county procedures for safeguarding public safety in high-rise buildings. Some workers told the newspaper the project took shortcuts that could jeopardize public safety.
Harrah’s managers maintained for several years that the remodeling of the 21-floor tower was only cosmetic and did not need the permits and inspections required for more substantial work that affects public safety, according to workers. A county report of a cursory February inspection of the Ipanema tower repeated that theory.
"We are moving forward to … be in compliance," Jones said in a telephone interview this past week from London. Jones, the former mayor of Las Vegas, is senior vice president for communications and government relations.
"We take safety as of paramount importance," she also said, explaining Harrah’s Entertainment is cooperating with the county and conducting its own internal investigation as well.
Harrah’s will make "sure our policies and practices are taking into consideration the maximum safety of our guests."
EX-WORKER RELAYS SUSPICIONS
Fred Frazzetta, a Las Vegas man who had worked on the remodeling, came to the newspaper in July with suspicions that Harrah’s had violated building codes during the Rio project.
Permits are intended to prevent sub-standard design or construction; inspections are intended to catch construction work that fails to meet minimum safety standards.
"They made a calculated bet that it (the lack of permits) wouldn’t go public," said Frazzetta when he was told the county will now conduct inspections.
"We’ve just been notified of a violation on one floor in the Rio. I wouldn’t take it any grander than that," Jones had said this past week before a second round of violation notices covering additional hotel floors came out on Friday.
On Monday she said the gaming empire views the second round as simply an extension of the first for the county to show its due diligence.
Until Harrah’s finishes its own investigation, Jones said, she would not answer questions about the scope of the remodeling or which Harrah’s personnel made key decisions.
Stacey Welling, a public information officer for the county, confirmed the Department of Development Services had, "based on information provided to us by the Review-Journal … reopened its investigation into an allegation that staff at Harrah’s Entertainment did remodeling work at the Rio Hotel without necessary permits. The department takes this allegation very seriously."
Legal counsel is advising the county department not to comment further until its investigation is complete, at which time it will make a written report available to the public, Welling said.
"It proves to me that, all the way up to the time I got the media involved, they had no intention of remedying the situation," Frazzetta, an electrician, asserted Monday. By "they," he said he means the county and Harrah’s Entertainment.
COUNTY INSPECTOR’S REPORT
Frazzetta had filed a complaint with Development Services in August 2006 about the lack of permits for the Rio’s remodeling of the Ipanema, which had concluded in early 2006 for floors 3 through 19. The county department did not conduct an inspection until February, six months after the complaint came in. That same day, it closed the case.
"The only work found that requires a permit was the replacement of one light fixture in each unit," Richard Maddox, a supervising building inspector, wrote in his four-paragraph Feb. 16 inspection report.
The document said he inspected 37 guest rooms in the Rio tower. But the document did not say which 37 rooms, which floors they were on, nor who selected the rooms, nor which light fixture had required a permit.
In early September, Maddox told the newspaper he did not keep notes on which rooms he inspected, which light fixture was in violation, or which building plans he had used to determine that the rooms had not been changed significantly.
In late September Ron Lynn, director of Development Services, said Maddox did not follow department practice in drafting the report and would "receive appropriate guidance."
At that time, Lynn cited three pages in three Rio plans, which he said Maddox reported consulting before he closed the Rio case in February. In the same interview, Lynn also agreed to answer follow-up questions, which were sent to him on Sept. 25. But later he declined to answer them, invoking the investigation announced on Thursday as the reason he cannot.
After Frazzetta’s first contact, the newspaper extensively interviewed the electrician and five other remodeling project workers. It studied building permits for the Rio on file with the county, including the pages cited by Lynn.
In late August it rented two rooms in the Rio’s Ipanema tower to compare actual layouts with the most recent approved building plans. It also recruited an architect from a local construction consulting firm to visit the rooms and compare them to plans.
"There should be plans for the configuration of the rooms, and all the electrical and plumbing work that was going to be done," said architect Brian Grill, after he viewed a 19th-floor suite which, in his opinion, did not match the original 19th floor plans he had been shown. "There are plans somewhere on this. The facilities manager would have the plans," theorized Grill, who works in Nevada for Benchmark Consulting Services. He works as a licensed architect only in Arizona and California.
IPANEMA DATES TO 1990
The Ipanema is a three-wing tower built in stages; its oldest wing dates back to the 1990 opening of the hotel. The Ipanema tower is entirely separate from the hotel’s Masquerade tower.
Today the hotel promotes suites on the Ipanema’s 19th floor as being 1,200 square feet in size. But plans dating to the original construction indicate that 19th floor contained standard suites, which are described in hotel literature as only 600 square feet.
The Review-Journal did not find in the county files any plans to expand these suites. If they exist, the county and Harrah’s have declined to provide them, citing their investigations.
After the demolition crew had readied the 19th floor for remodeling, the only interior walls standing were those that formed the central guest hallway, according to several workers, including Las Vegan Josh Costello, who did demolition and electrical work on the project.
"There were no walls left. You could stand at one end of the tower, and look at the other end of the tower," Costello recalled.
Fire safety requires inspection of new walls between adjacent guest rooms to verify the installation’s fire rating, which designates the length of time a wall can keep fire on one side from reaching the other side. If the 19th floor suites are new work, as workers contend, the walls have not been inspected.
In the standard suite the newspaper rented on the 12th floor of the Ipanema’s oldest wing, Grill observed several ceiling lights in locations where the original plans indicated no lights at all. He also observed a new electric receptacle that did not appear on approved plans.
If a receptacle is not checked for polarity, it is possible for a ground fault to go undetected. Usually, reverse polarity, which can occur during wiring, causes no problem. But in proximity to cooling equipment, such as a refrigerator, it can lead to a fire, he noted.
ARCHITECT ADVISES PRUDENCE
The cause of the infamous MGM Grand fire in 1980 that claimed 87 lives was traced to an electrical ground fault linked to a refrigerated pastry case in the hotel’s deli, according to the official MGM Grand Hotel Fire Investigation Report.
"It would only be prudent" for inspectors to randomly sample a percentage of the rooms for code compliance, Grill told the newspaper at the end of his visit to the hotel rooms. He recommended invasive inspections. Whether to inspect more, or all, Ipanema rooms would hinge on what the first inspections reveal, he said.
Before contacting the newspaper, Frazzetta said he had approached a variety of individuals inside Harrah’s Entertainment and within the county to voice his worry. He characterized their reactions as disinterest.
Harrah’s Entertainment has been purchased by a partnership of two private equity groups. The transfer is scheduled to take place near the end of this year’s fourth quarter, according to Owen Blicksilver, a spokesman for Texas Pacific Group, one of the purchasing partners.
Blicksilver said Texas Pacific Group owners declined comment on the lack of inspections.RELATED STORIES • Former employee alerts state OSHA • Some work proves tougher to inspect