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Judge Sam Deeply Skeptical of Government Power

Judge Sam Deeply Skeptical of Government Power

Posted - Dec. 5, 2003 at 3:51 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- For the two defendants in the Olympic bid scandal, U.S. District Court Judge David Sam couldn't have been more understanding.

Sam, the son of immigrants who fled government oppression in Romania, says he values liberty and freedom above everything else.

So it was little surprise that Sam sent Justice Department lawyers packing Friday after throwing out what he saw as their fanciful racketeering case -- for a second time and this time for good.

But he didn't let them go without a scolding, declaring their case was so lacking in evidence it "offends my sense of justice." Not only did Tom Welch, who led the campaign for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and his deputy Dave Johnson lack "criminal intent or evil purpose," the judge celebrated their victory bringing the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake.

But Sam, a 70-year-old senior judge, was just warming up.

"Several times during the history of this case I have heard counsel for the United States represent themselves as the protectors of our moral values here in the state of Utah and protectors of the sacred standards of the Olympic charter. How commendable and noteworthy. But when considered in the light of the government's evidence in this case, how misplaced," he said from the bench.

Welch and Johnson never disputed showering $1 million in generous cash reimbursements for travel and other expenses, gifts and favors on International Olympic Committee delegates, but said it didn't amount to bribery. They also insisted the gift-giving was so common among bid cities that Salt Lake had to match the best of them.

Sam agreed, noting the IOC never bothered to penalize Salt Lake by taking away the games.

After his ruling, an easy-mannered Sam sat in his chambers for an interview, savoring the end of nearly five weeks of trial. He showed off his portable beehive, which "really created a buzz here at the courthouse."

Sam had arrived at 4 a.m. Friday to finish writing in longhand his nine-page statement excoriating the Justice Department. Most of the evening before he spent "thinking about this case winding down."

Sam -- who had thrown out all the charges before, but was overturned by an appeals court that said the government deserved a chance to put on a case -- called the Olympic ordeal "certainly one of the highlight cases of my career."

In interviews Friday, Olympic bribery jurors wholeheartedly endorsed Sam's decision to throw out the case. "I just felt like he had total control of the courtroom and did a wonderful job," said one juror, Linda Jardine.

Sam has a grandfatherly touch. He never failed to take note of jurors' birthdays, warn them of bad weather or joke about college football. When the football team for Brigham Young University, his alma mater, finished its poor season, he told jurors to "think about basketball."

"He's an unusually kind person," said U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins, who has served longer on Utah's federal bench than any of the other eight judges. "He's a great patriot. He's very appreciative of the blessings of this country and expresses that very often."

And on the law, Sam sets an exacting standard for the government. He interprets law literally, frowns on fanciful legal theories like those used to prosecute the bid leaders and emphasizes the limited role of government, especially the federal government, in constitutional affairs.

He's a conservative judge in conservative Utah.

"My, how blessed we are as American citizens," Sam said in Friday's bench ruling. "It's just a wonderful blessing to be an American."

A son of Romanian immigrants who fled fascism and fear in 1914, Sam appears to be profoundly influenced by his family's hardships, triumphs and pursuit of freedom.

"I'm so proud to be part of the legal profession. It plays a vital role, and under a dictatorship or communism we'd be the first to go," Sam told the AP in a 2001 interview, drawing a finger across his throat for emphasis. That interview occurred between two rulings Sam made that dismantled the government's original case against Welch and Johnson.

His father, Andre Sirb -- a name changed to Sam by U.S. immigration agents -- was a fiercely independent man who fled Romania at 19, walking across much of Europe before boarding a ship to Philadelphia. Sam's mother followed safely on her own with a passport and travel visa.

His father, proud and stubborn, toiled in Gary, Ind., steel mills for 42 years but refused to join a union even when it could have meant better pay to support a family of 11.

David Sam was the youngest child. As a teenager he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, went to BYU, the church-run school, and stayed in Utah. His suburban house holds a collection of religious and American symbols dear to his heart.

In his chambers, Sam never fails to show visitors a picture of his wife, Betty -- and never fails to get teary-eyed at the drop of her name. She died in August 2000 of Lou Gehrig's disease, leaving eight children and 34 grandchildren.

When his wife had fallen ill, they canceled plans to serve a yearlong mission posting for the Mormon church in Romania, and he stopped taking cases for a year. He resumed as a senior, semiretired judge who handles 30 percent of the usual caseload. He has no plans to quit working.

Outside court Friday, an emotional Welch had one thing to say about the man who ended his long ordeal.

"I just thank God for people like Judge Sam," he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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