Harrah's Resort Southern California in Valley Center is shown on Sept. 3, 2020. A former executive is suing over the casino's reopening. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A top executive at Harrah’s Resort Southern California who quit the day before the casino reopened is suing his former employer, claiming he was forced to resign after management ignored his concerns that the decision was dangerous and could expose visitors to COVID-19.

Darrell Pilant, the Valley Center casino’s former general manager and senior vice president, filed the lawsuit against Caesars Entertainment Inc. in San Diego Superior Court on Monday. He alleges the company’s decision to reopen in May resulted in “serious adverse health and safety consequences involving employees and customers contracting COVID-19.” 

San Diego County confirmed to inewsource this week that 217 local residents who have contracted COVID-19 reported being at a casino within two weeks of becoming ill. Twelve of the people were hospitalized and one, a casino patron, died.

Why this matters

San Diego County’s nine tribal casinos reopened in May with limited operations, about two months after shutting down due to COVID-19. Because they are on sovereign land, they aren’t subject to local health regulations that ordered other businesses remain closed.

The cases are tied to seven of the county’s nine tribal casinos and involve 76 employees and 141 guests, county spokesperson Sarah Sweeney said. She noted that even though those who tested positive visited a casino during their potential exposure period, it doesn’t mean they contracted the coronavirus there.

The county has refused to name specific businesses where outbreaks have occurred, including casinos.

The Rincon Band of the Luiseño Indians owns the Valley Center casino. It uses the resort’s revenue to fund tribal government services for its more than 500 members and 5,000-acre reservation. The tribe contracts with Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment, the largest gaming company in the U.S.

Tribal casinos are on sovereign land, meaning they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of state or local health officials. When they reopened after a roughly two-month closure, many other businesses in the county remained closed.

Like the other casinos, Harrah’s reopening plan includes requirements for face coverings, social distancing and increased sanitation. 

Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Band, said in a recent newsletter that the tribe “literally took the lead” to coordinate with other tribes and government officials for reopening.

“Rincon’s position was that someone had to take charge and do something for Indian tribes and reservations throughout the state,” he wrote in the newsletter. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom and local health officials opposed the decision to reopen. In a letter to tribal leaders, Newsom said he understands casinos are crucial to funding their government services. But, he wrote, “I cannot stress enough that the risk of COVID-19 transmission remains a serious threat for all Californians.”

In his lawsuit, Pilant claims he was repeatedly assured that Newsom and the county were “on board” with reopening. Despite Pilant’s repeated concerns to management about health and safety risks, he said the company gave him an “illegal and dangerous” directive to lead the reopening.

He called it “a matter of ‘right and wrong’ and what Caesars was doing was wrong.” His last day at work was May 21, a day before Harrah’s reopened the casino’s doors. 

Pilant’s suit argues he was “constructively terminated” and under his contract is eligible for severance equal to a year’s worth of his salary, a figure that was not included in court documents. He’s also seeking unspecified damages.

A sign for Harrah’s Resort Southern California advertises for the casino along Valley Center Road, Sept. 3, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

He declined to comment when reached by inewsource. Pilant’s attorney, Anthony Pantoni, did not respond to phone calls or emails.

A nearly 23-year employee of Caesars Entertainment, Pilant had held positions with the company in other states before coming to Harrah’s Resort Southern California in 2011. He was promoted to general manager in 2016, overseeing all casino operations. 

Pilant serves on several community boards, including the Palomar Health Foundation and the San Diego Food Bank.

The Rincon Band, which through a spokesperson declined to comment for this story, citing the litigation, is not named as a defendant. Mazzetti is quoted in an Aug. 26 news story in the Valley Roadrunner saying no COVID-19 cases have been identified at the resort or on the reservation.

A Caesars Entertainment spokesperson for the Rincon property did not respond to phone calls and emails from inewsource.

Casinos in the county did not respond to inquiries from inewsource seeking their case numbers. An official from the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation, which owns the Sycuan CasinoResort in East County, has previously confirmed the casino worked with the county to investigate cases involving those who tested positive for COVID-19.

The pandemic is a “fluid situation” for casinos, Eddie Ilko, Sycuan’s safety manager, told inewsource

The casino has already made some changes to its safety measures since reopening, said Ilko, who also is chairman of the National Indian Casino Safety Association. Sycuan has banned smoking in certain parts of the resort, required face masks more robust than bandanas and gaiters and added employees to enforce policies.

“We had to learn on the fly,” Ilko said. “This was something new for everybody.” 

The casino has also added surveillance resources, he said, to track people’s movements who are later found to have tested positive. This makes it easier to alert guests or workers who were within six feet of those infected with the virus.

Sweeney said the county works closely with tribal health authorities on individual cases and contact investigations but “has not made any definitive connection between any casino employee and a patron.”

Still, county officials say visiting a casino puts a person at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and have “repeatedly commented that going to a casino is not essential,” Sweeney said in an email.

“Those who do go are encouraged to review the precautions that the casino is taking to prevent illness,” she said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is a former investigative reporter for inewsource focused on environment and energy in San Diego and Imperial counties. Her position was partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. Previously, she covered growth and development in San...

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...