Business

What really happens in Vegas …

Getting to the bottom of the investigation into R&R Partners and the LVCVA

If I were an investigative reporter working for one of the local daily newspapers, near the top of my list for digging would be the complex, expensive and probably unprecedented relationship between R&R Partners and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Therein lies a very incestuous web of personal and professional conflicts and galling amounts of unaccounted-for taxpayer money. Any time there’s more than $80 million being spent on one company to do something as nebulous as promoting a destination, it’s fertile ground for scandal.

So here’s what I would do if I had a big handlebar moustache and wore a 10-gallon hat and viewed myself as Nevada’s last, best hope of staving off tyranny: I’d set aside some time for my best reporters to analyze the books, file Freedom of Information Act requests, work sources and produce something substantive. You know, I’d put some resources, some money, some elbow grease into it. And I’d make sure that whatever the reporters did, it was fair and balanced.

What I wouldn’t do is repackage the propaganda of some agenda-driven “think-tank” and call it my most pressing story on a Sunday when my circulation was at its peak.

The November 30 Review-Journal piece, titled “LVCVA, ad agency defend deal,” by A.D. Hopkins was a travesty of journalism. In fact, as hard as I’ve been on my blog and elsewhere about the R-J’s silly approaches to their Internet content, I never imagined that Editor Thomas Mitchell and Publisher Sherman Frederick would allow such a piece of tripe to touch the ink-stained fingers of their dwindling legions of readers.

Hopkins’ story starts out well enough, referring to an audit of the LVCVA’s books that found R&R having overcharged the LVCVA in a few areas and LVCVA chief Rossi Ralenkotter evidently not giving a hoot. We then find out that this audit is a year old and the review of it was conducted by a thus far unnamed “government watchdog group,” which sounds awfully self-important and credible. The reader is then treated to a list of bullet points with really big dollar figures intended to alarm and offend. (Example: R&R gets a 17.65 percent commission on $40 million in advertising it purchases for the LVCVA; we’re never told anywhere in the piece how this compares to ad buyers for other companies, so we’re merely left with the impression it’s a high figure.)

We’re a good quarter of the way into this story—and past the jump in the print edition—before we learn more about the source of this material. Turns out, our “government watchdog group” is an outfit called the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which hired Arizona-based freelance investigative reporter John Dougherty to, essentially, read the LVCVA’s audit.

By his own account in Hopkins’ story, Dougherty did virtually no interviews during his six-month junket, er, assignment, but he “gathered 10,000 pages of documents, mostly through public records requests to the LVCVA, and organized them.”

So let’s “audit” the situation so far. The R-J, with its staff of dozens of highly qualified but overworked journalists, couldn’t be bothered to either assign one of them to this task or at least hire an outside freelancer themselves. Instead, they let NPRI spend the money and treated NPRI’s findings as front-page Sunday-morning news?

Wait, it gets better. Let me tell you about NPRI. This is where it gets really good. We don’t really find out exactly who they are in Hopkins’ story, other than that they’re a self-described right-wing group that hearts “transparency” in government.

I’m a transparency-in-media kinda guy myself, so I “audited” the NPRI’s website. And look at that, one of the members of the NPRI board is none other than William P. Weidner, the president of Las Vegas Sands. LVS, of course, hates the LVCVA, because the Las Vegas Convention Center competes with taxpayer subsidy against the Venetian-Palazzo owners’ Sands Expo Center. Weidner and his boss, Sheldon Adelson, have been trying for years to get the LVCVA rubbed from the good Earth.

This is the sort of good info that could help a reader decide whether NPRI’s efforts to hatchet up the LVCVA are legit. It’s also the sort of stuff that would give a reasonable newspaper editor pause before publishing their findings as news.

Oddly, later in the same week the R-J did another LVCVA story based on Dougherty’s work that did acknowledge the Weidner connection. And the author of that piece, Benjamin Spillman, did his own extensive independent reporting to confirm the germ of Dougherty’s findings and then elaborated on it.

In other words, Spillman took a lead and filled it out, this time painting a devastating portrait of Ralenkotter as a profligate waster of taxpayer money on an outrageous vanity project, basically buying an honor from a charity for himself while haughtily exclaiming that he has the power to do so. He may, but that doesn’t make it right.

Unfortunately for Spillman, the specious work of Hopkins days before destroyed the newspaper’s credibility on this front and allowed Mayor Oscar Goodman to shrug off the controversy when Spillman asked for comment. Little the R-J says about the LVCVA will ever matter now.

And that’s too bad, because Ralenkotter is a total snake. I know this from personal experience; he tried to get me blacklisted as a journalist back in 2003 when I was first building my freelance practice. I had hit him hard with questions for a Boston Globe piece about the LVCVA’s support of the Las Vegas Mono-fail, and next thing I knew I was summoned to R&R’s offices. One of their associates informed me that if I did not apologize, Ralenkotter wanted R&R to block my access to important people and events.

I refused. Instead, I e-mailed Ralenkotter to see if we could meet and clear the air, but he refused. I moved on and, evidently, never suffered from Ralenkotter’s delusions of grandeur. I’ve merely covered the LVCVA’s promotional activities a lot less, if at all. There are loads of other stories to cover and many other prominent, more pleasant people to interview in this town.

I reveal this to clarify that I have little sympathy for the LVCVA. I’ve got some respect for R&R, although the fact that the firm carried Ralenkotter’s water against me at that time will always keep me suspicious.

Indeed, never in a million years would I have thought I’d be defending Ralenkotter and his ilk. In fact, when I opened the paper that Sunday, I thought, “Oh, good, someone’s finally looked into that.”

Then I saw that the someone was a paid hand of an activist group with a very clear agenda that was withheld from readers. That’s not news. And rather than earn plaudits for advancing the story, the R-J has lost an enormous amount of its own credibility.

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