Updated August 6, 2020 - 2:00 pm
Former Las Vegas tourism boss Rossi Ralenkotter and his lawyer are discussing a plea deal with prosecutors in his high-profile felony theft case, the Review-Journal has learned.
The talks could allow the retired Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO to plead guilty to lesser charges, a source said.
The politically connected Ralenkotter, 73, and three other defendants are charged in the alleged theft of thousands of dollars worth of Southwest Airlines gift cards bought by the tax-funded LVCVA between 2012 and 2017. He is currently facing two felony counts, theft and misconduct of a public officer.
Ralenkotter, who has denied wrongdoing, declined to comment Wednesday on whether he was in plea discussions. His lawyer, Anthony Sgro, did not respond to requests for comment. Ralenkotter was earning nearly $1 million a year in salary and benefits before he left the LVCVA and began receiving nearly $300,000 a year in state retirement benefits.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Scow, the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.
Veteran defense attorney Chris Rasmussen, who is not involved in the case, said prosecutors have been more willing to enter into plea agreements amid the resurgence of the coronavirus.
“Right now the irons are hot to strike favorable deals with the state for criminal defendants,” Rasmussen said. “COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on court procedures, and the judges are encouraging us to resolve cases away from the courthouse.”
The Ralenkotter talks come as a key court hearing this week to suppress evidence was canceled and not rescheduled.
Justice of the Peace Harmony Letizia set a Sept. 3 status check in the case, just days before a Sept. 8 preliminary hearing on whether to bind all four defendants over for trial in District Court.
If Ralenkotter strikes a plea agreement, he will not have to go through a preliminary hearing and will avoid a trial.
Letizia issued a brief order July 28 putting off the suppression hearing, which was supposed to include testimony from the LVCVA officials who exposed the gift card scandal. An assistant to the judge said the order cited no reason for the cancellation and was handed down as a result of an agreement between the parties.
No status check was listed in the cases against the other three defendants — former LVCVA Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Tull, former Business Partnerships Director Brig Lawson and former Southwest Airlines executive Eric Woodson.
Attorneys Paola Armeni and Chris Oram, who represent Tull and Lawson, respectively, said Wednesday they were not in any current plea talks and did not know whether Ralenkotter’s lawyer was negotiating with prosecutors. Woodson’s lawyer, Pete Christiansen, could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against the four defendants on Sept. 9, 2019, but the case has moved slowly as the court system navigates through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Personal gift card use
The criminal investigation was prompted by Review-Journal stories disclosing audit results that showed widespread misuse of the Southwest gift cards. The agency could not account for $50,000 of the $90,000 in purchased cards, the audit found.
The audit was ordered amid the newspaper’s investigation that revealed wasteful spending and poor board oversight of the convention authority, which at the time had a $251 million operating budget, mostly from tourist taxes, to lure visitors to Las Vegas.
The criminal complaint alleged that Ralenkotter used roughly $16,000 in Southwest cards on personal travel and that Tull bought airline tickets for herself and family members with $6,000 in gift cards. Both executives reimbursed the LVCVA and left the agency before they were charged.
Tull, 52, who also is facing charges of theft and misconduct by a public officer, agreed to pay $8,700 in fines for violating the state ethics law over her personal use of the cards. The Nevada Commission on Ethics put its investigation of Ralenkotter on hold until the criminal case is resolved.
Lawson, 50, bought the gift cards for the convention authority and instructed Woodson, 55, and other Southwest employees to hide the purchases in promotional invoices, police alleged. Lawson then distributed the cards within the convention authority. He was charged with felony counts of theft, forgery and unlawful use of public money.
Ralenkotter’s access to large sums of public tourism dollars and his relationships with the major casinos on the Strip made him one of the most influential public officials in the state.
He retired on Aug. 31, 2018, two months after Las Vegas police launched the criminal investigation.
His $455,000 retirement package included a $270,000 consulting contract with the agency. The board canceled the contract after Ralenkotter was charged in the criminal case.
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 email@example.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter. German is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Support our journalism.