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Joan Whitely

Fire sealant added at Rio

22 October 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Rio Hotel recently took an entire wing of its Ipanema guest tower offline for two days so workers could add vital fire sealing that had been omitted in remodeling projects conducted without permits and inspections.

Former Harrah's Las Vegas employee Fred Frazzetta -- who had worked on the Rio renovations in 2005 and alerted the Review-Journal this past summer to the possibility of improper work -- says the resorts' parent company, Harrah's Entertainment, has invited him to a private meeting Monday.

Frazzetta, an electrician, said he doesn't know what the meeting will be about. "They're the ones calling it." He said he intends to attend without an attorney and "listen only."

The electrician said attorney Paul Ades had arranged the meeting, but Ades told him it would be conducted by attorneys from the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm with offices around the globe.

The newspaper spent two months researching Frazzetta's recollections about the 2004 to 2006 remodeling project for which no permits or inspections were recorded. Both are required by building code and are designed to ensure safe construction.

The county launched its current investigation of remodeling irregularities at the Rio, which has since spread to encompass work at Harrah's Las Vegas, in late September.

The Rio rooms recently taken out of service were all the standard guest rooms on floors four through 17 of the Ipanema tower's oldest wing. It was the only wing of the tower in existence when the Rio opened. When replacing the original bathtubs in that wing, workers had widened holes in the concrete slabs separating one floor from the next to allow for changes in tub plumbing, but didn't correctly seal the openings to prevent smoke from spreading during a fire.

The Review-Journal reported Oct. 3 that its research suggested the oldest wing had unsealed holes in its slabs. The unsealed holes were discovered Oct. 11, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said Friday. Harrah's contractor, Penta Building, immediately pulled a permit for the repair, then the holes were properly sealed and inspected over Oct. 12 and 13, she said.

The repairs affected about 360 rooms. This potentially life-threatening deficiency was not found in the Ipanema's two other wings, except on the 18th and 19th floors, Welling added. Those two floors were ordered closed early in the investigation.

Assuming all the wing's rooms were unavailable for guests on two weekend evenings, the Rio Hotel experienced up to $108,000 in lost revenues, based on a weekend rate of $150 a night.

On Thursday, the Clark County Fire Department ordered a fire watch on the 50th and 51st floors of the Rio's Masquerade Tower, where the Voodoo lounge and steakhouse are located. No improper remodeling is alleged there, but a check of the fire safety system showed accordion doors weren't operating properly. So personnel will be posted to operate the doors until the fire safety system is repaired, Fire Department spokesman Scott Allison said.

The county building division recently ordered workmen to disconnect unauthorized electrical equipment -- a transformer and two sub-panels -- that had been installed in a 19th-floor storage room of the Ipanema to feed power to the jacuzzi tubs that were part of the undocumented renovations which created upgraded, larger suites on that floor.

Earlier this week, the county also issued violation notices for the two newer wings of the Ipanema, which looks like a "Y" when viewed from above. These problems included ceiling lights installed without permits as well as new electrical outlets in walls and changes to bathroom floor plans.

Until the county launched its investigation, managers from Harrah's had contended the Rio remodeling was superficial and cosmetic, and therefore didn't require permits or county oversight. Even the county appeared to accept the manager's word, because its inspector Rick Maddox let the complaint Frazzetta filed languish for six months before doing a one-day inspection on Feb. 16. His report, which closed the complaint the same day, said the hotel's work was limited to new switches and switch plates, as well as "carpet, flooring, wallpaper, new sinks with counter tops and new toilets, all of which requires no permits."

Since late September, executives of Harrah's Entertainment have acknowledged the problematic remodeling. The company is cooperating with the county investigation, and conducting its own internal investigation.