Olympic Bid Leaders Gambling on Jury Trial for Acquittal

Olympic Bid Leaders Gambling on Jury Trial for Acquittal

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Years after the Olympic bid-rigging scandal captured the world's attention and long after the games are over, the stage is set for the federal trial of two executives who headed Salt Lake's campaign for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The trial, which opens Tuesday, is unlikely to be cut short by a plea deal, which the defendants rejected twice before and the government has yet to renew. Both sides seemed emboldened, and the judge says they're well-prepared for battle before a Utah jury.

"I'm not looking for a deal and I don't expect one. Nor do I want one," says Tom Welch, 59, who was president of the Salt Lake bid and organizing committees.

Welch and Dave Johnson, 44, who was senior vice president, are fighting 15 felony charges that could land them 75 years in prison. They dispute not what they did, but the government's version of why they did it.

Thousands of pages of evidence show the bid executives doled out $1 million in cash, gifts, travel, family scholarships, medical care, real-estate deals and more on International Olympic Committee delegates who awarded Utah the games that turned a $100 million profit.

But it wasn't bribery, Welch and Johnson always insisted; it was the Olympic way of business, the way all bid cities did it, the way some cultures expected, and the revelations that grew from a single leaked memo forced changes at the IOC.

"It was open and notorious that people in the IOC were treated like royalty," Max Wheeler, Johnson's defense lawyer, told a federal magistrate who refused to dismiss charges.

Welch and Johnson insist that in spite of denials their board members, including Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, knew of the gifts. Leavitt is among those scheduled to testify, and he may have to travel from Washington, D.C., to do it. Leavitt is President Bush's embattled nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Wheeler ran down a list of perks he said IOC members expected from Salt Lake -- the finest hotels, front-row Utah Jazz seats, Lake Powell helicopter jaunts and fancy gifts. If the IOC really wanted to enforce its once-loose gift rules, "we'd all be in jail," he said. "The point is, the line (was) never drawn."

Welch and Johnson were indicted in 2000 by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery racketeering, conspiracy and mail, wire and "honest-services" fraud. They were also accused of violating the Travel Act by lobbying IOC delegates overseas.

The Justice Department insists the case boils down to "boldface bribes," not cordial gifts sealing friendships as the defense has made them out. To drive home the point U.S. attorneys are expected to hammer at trial, they filed one nine-page court brief that used the word "bribery" nine times, often with emphatic modifiers like "outright" and "unmistakable."

"The United States has an interest in demonstrating that it will not tolerate corruption in the competition for the selection of host cities for the Olympic Games," Justice Department appeals attorney Richard Friedman wrote in another brief.

Welch and Johnson seem just as intent to win acquittal as the Justice Department is to test its organized crime-like case on a new front.

Utah federal Judge David Sam found the case such a stretch for Olympic bidding he threw it out in 2001, sparing Salt Lake City the embarrassment of a courtroom spectacle leading up to the February 2002 games. Finally, the flag-waving success of the games, which brought home a record 34 medals after the terror attacks, seemed to bury the vote-buying scandal.

Even Hollywood studios lost interest, dropping two made-for-TV scandal movies timed for the torch run.

The bid affair was traded for a French/Russian judging scandal on the ice rink. Possibly the only winner to come out of the bid scandal was Mitt Romney, who was brought in to turn around the organizing committee and used it to win election as Massachusetts governor.

By then the bid scandal was all but forgotten. But last March, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver reversed Sam and ordered the bid leaders to stand trial. When Sam welcomed back lawyers this month for a pretrial conference, he said, "I never thought I'd see you again."

Welch has seen his share of tragedy since the Olympic games. In August, his 30-year-old daughter unexpectedly died after a foot operation. And Welch is getting divorced from his second wife, a California widow he married in 1999. Welch says his separation from Susan Sutter was amicable.

Welch, a business consultant who just returned from a fishing trip to Alaska, spends most of his time at his Park City, Utah, condo.

Johnson says "I'm just a pingpong ball," though he, too, seems optimistic. Both make it clear they want their day in court and the charges resolved.

Johnson handles sales for Sorenson Media, a Salt Lake company owned by medical devices billionaire James L. Sorenson that's promoting its video conferencing technology for the deaf.

Welch and Johnson received financial settlements from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee after their firings, and the committee's insurer is paying millions of dollars for their legal fees. Both rejected government plea offers before and after their indictment to a single count of tax fraud. It was only a misdemeanor, but prosecutors wouldn't make any promises about prison or probation.

Now the two men are gambling against 15 felony charges, raising the stakes at the same time U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is limiting the freedom of prosecutors to strike plea bargains in criminal cases. Ashcroft has directed U.S. attorneys to seek the toughest punishment possible against nearly all defendants.

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

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