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Undisclosed Renovations Under Investigation at Paris Las Vegas:
Whistle-blower Prompts 20 Notices of Violation

By Joan Whitely, Las Vegas Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 26, 2009--As of midday Friday, county building inspectors had issued more than 20 notices of violation to Paris Las Vegas for unpermitted or substandard work they have uncovered while investigating a September complaint by a new whistle-blower, an electrician who was laid off from the Paris in February.

With the help of former co-workers, electrician Paul Sepe said, he compiled a list of 33 overlooked renovations. The list covers many items that Harrah's Entertainment did not disclose to the county back in March 2008, when it was supposed to come clean on all renovations it did from 2000 to 2007 without permits or inspections at its local properties, which include the Paris.

"We're actively investigating the items noted in the complaint," county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said Friday afternoon. She did not have an accounting of any deficiencies the Fire Department's separate investigation has found in Paris' fire-protection systems.

Harrah's Entertainment did its best in its 2008 disclosure, company spokeswoman Marybel Batjer said late Friday via e-mail. "The list we submitted to the County represented a thorough review of over 2,000 projects -- the omission of these 29 projects was a simple oversight, and is now being addressed." Nine Paris projects were on Harrah's list.

The casino company has been working "closely and very diligently" with the Clark County district attorney's office and other county agencies to remediate all projects that lacked permits, Batjer also wrote.

Sepe, 48, who is unemployed, took his list to the county Fire Department, his union's out-of-town leadership and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as well as several members of Nevada's congressional delegation. He worked at the Paris in building operations from 2007 to early 2009 -- and before that, at Harrah's Las Vegas.

The county's notices to Paris cover deficiencies in areas frequented by guests, such as the sports book, restaurants, a wedding chapel, parking garage and the check-in area for so-called Diamond-level guests. Some employee areas -- such as restaurant kitchens, offices for risk management and Asian marketing, as well as the hotel's main phone room -- also contain work that fails to meet safety codes.

A dramatic example of a hazard that Sepe reported to the county, resulting in a violation notice, was supervisors' decision to not upgrade the electric panel serving several air conditioner units that were added to cool a small mechanical room that houses crucial drives, which power the pumps for the entire property's air conditioning system. The notice orders the Paris to replace the panel, which has been undersized for about a year.

If the panel started a fire, it could knock out all the air conditioning and create danger for guests or employees in the parking garage, on the seventh level where the mechanical room is.

Sepe said some electricians warned bosses about the problem, but were ignored. He said he was told the air-conditioning units were programmed to never come on at the same time, the scenario that would trigger an overload.

Sepe claims his Paris supervisors routinely had in-house workers do electrical renovations without permits and inspections, though they are required by law to ensure safety. Sepe said he deduced there were no permits for certain jobs because he and others never saw county inspectors at the scene, and those jobs were never held up waiting for inspections.

"There is a set of (blue) prints in the electric shop, where the senior electrician wrote in red ink all the changes that were ever made," Sepe said, describing how he believes the hotel kept track of electrical modifications that don't show on official building documents filed with the county.

Another clearly visible renovation without a permit -- which Sepe acknowledged that he participated in and has reported to the county -- was the wholesale replacement of ceiling light fixtures throughout the eight-story parking garage, which entailed extensive rewiring. A separate violation notice details that workers acquired some of the fluorescent light fixtures for the garage by cannibalizing "every other (fluorescent ceiling) light in the main back-of-house hallway," which reduced the hall's lighting. The workers reinstalled those fluorescents in the parking garage, eliminating high-pressure sodium bulbs, which consume more power.

The electrician told the newspaper he decided to step forward because he was worried about building safety at the hotel. He said he had followed the news coverage of building deficiencies at other local Harrah's local hotels in the last couple of years, and did not believe the casino company had been entirely honest about the Paris.

Clark County had requested a summary of covert renovations from Harrah's Entertainment last year, after the Review-Journal reported on never-inspected projects at Harrah's hotels, primarily at the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas. Criminal arraignments of the parent corporation and two supervisors from the Rio and Harrah's on misdemeanor charges of violating building codes have been repeatedly postponed for more than a year as the hotel group documents code compliance at its properties.

Sepe also said he filed the complaint in response to what he considers dishonorable behavior at Harrah's hotels by some members of his union, Local 501 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

One engineering supervisor at Paris has been a district representative in 501 leadership, which, according to Sepe, is symptomatic of a cozy relationship that benefits Harrah's Entertainment management and union leaders more than union members. Local 501's Los-Angeles-based business manager, Christopher Brown, did not return a phone call requesting comment.

Batjer said the casino company sees no conflict in the union matter.

Contact reporter Joan Whitely at jwhitely@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0268.

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Copyright (c) 2009, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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