Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Gift Card Scandal Ends with Slaps on the Wrist

Posted on: January 12, 2021, 02:20h. 

Last updated on: January 12, 2021, 02:42h.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) scandal involving Southwest Airlines gift cards has ended with only minor penalties for those involved.

Las Vegas crime LVCVA Southwest cards
Brig Lawson, seen here in an undated photo, has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. The charge is related to his misusing of Southwest gift cards while employed at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. (Image: KSNV)

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia this week accepted Brig Lawson’s plea. Lawson, the LVCVA’s former director of business partnerships, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of “violation of law by a public officer.”

Lawson was issued a $500 fine.

Prosecutors alleged that Lawson devised a gift card scheme with two other former LVCVA executives — CEO Rossi Ralenkotter and Director of Business Kathy Tull. A 2018 audit of the agency found that $90,000 worth of Southwest Airlines gift cards were misused.

Metro Police believe Lawson conspired with a Southwest marketing executive to purchase the airline credits with LVCVA money. The audit revealed that most of the Southwest cards were used for personal travel.

The LVCVA is responsible for marketing Las Vegas and keeping its casinos and hotel rooms full. The agency’s mission is “to make Las Vegas the world’s premier destination for leisure and business travel.”

Sweetheart Deals

Lawson’s plea brings the Southwest gift card scandal to a close. Ralenkotter and Tull earlier pleaded no contest to similar misdemeanor charges. Ralenkotter was fined $1,000, while Tull paid a $500 penalty.

All three ex-LVCVA executives were facing much more consequential penalties for their actions. The trio were initially charged with felony theft, forgery, and unlawful use of public money. Considerable prison time was on the line, but prosecutors agreed to strike deals with the execs.

The pleas garnered criticism.

To have him [Ralenkotter] plead to a misdemeanor looks like a sweetheart deal to me,” Todd Leventhal, a former prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in August. “I’m not sure how this instills the public’s confidence.”

Ralenkotter admitted to using $17,000 in Southwest cards for personal travel with his wife. He announced his resignation in 2017 and reimbursed the agency. Ralenkotter is receiving a nearly $300,000 annual state pension, plus a $15,000 per month consultant fee from the LVCVA.

Tull admitted to using $6,000 worth of the airline credits for personal use. She, too, reimbursed the agency before departing in April of 2019.

The LVCVA has come under much scrutiny in recent years for its lavish spending. Between 2014 through 2017, the agency spent $700,000 on alcohol, and $85,000 on “adult entertainment.”

Authority Cutbacks

COVID-19 has led to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reducing its overhead. In April, the agency announced it was slashing its operating budget by $79 million. Roughly 80 employees were terminated.

The LVCVA is primarily funded through hotel fees incurred in Clark County. Hotel occupancy in Clark County was down 46 percent in 2020 through November. Las Vegas’ nearly 150,000 hotel rooms were occupied just 43.2 percent of the time. Midweek occupancy totaled only 38.7 percent.

Room rates, and therefore the associated tax the LVCVA collects, has also tumbled. The average nightly rate in 2020 was $121.71, down nine percent from $133.29.