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Judge Drops Olympic Bid Case

He criticizes prosecutors for bringing case against two civic leaders in Salt Lake City, accused of plying IOC officials with gifts to win 2002 Games.

December 06, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

The Salt Lake City corruption scandal, which produced wide-ranging reforms in the Olympic bid-city process, ended Friday when a federal judge threw out all felony charges against the leaders of Salt Lake's winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

U.S. District Judge David Sam, sitting in Salt Lake City, said prosecutors had proved no case against Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, each charged with 15 counts and facing up to 75 years in prison. Sam said the case offended his "sense of justice," and, "enough is enough."

"In my 40 years' experience with the criminal justice system, as a defense and prosecuting attorney, and as a Utah state judge and a United States District Court judge, I have never seen a criminal case brought to trial that was so devoid of ... criminal intent or evil purpose," Sam said, according to a court transcript.

Sam had originally dismissed the case in November 2001, but a federal appeals court reinstated it in April.

The judge formally acquitted Welch and Johnson on Friday. His decision cannot be appealed because defendants cannot be tried twice for the same crime.

Prosecutor Richard Wiedis of the Justice Department had urged the judge Thursday to reject the request to drop the charges.

"To dismiss this case now is to deprive the jury of its right to make a statement that Olympic corruption must be stopped," he said.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Christopher A. Wray said Friday in a statement, "We are disappointed in Judge Sam's rulings. In our view, the evidence that the jury was permitted to hear was more than sufficient for the case to go to verdict."

Welch, in a telephone interview, said, "It's been a long journey."

The judge handed down his ruling nearly two years after the 2002 Games and five years after the scandal erupted -- with the revelations that International Olympic Committee members or their relatives had been given more than $1 million in cash, gifts and other inducements before Salt Lake City's bid had been approved.

Stung by the late 1998 revelations, the IOC cleaned house in 1999. Ten IOC members resigned or were expelled, and the IOC enacted a 50-point reform plan that included a ban on visits by members to cities bidding for the Games. Even if the case had gone to the jury, however, the prosecution might have been in trouble. At least eight jurors polled informally after the ruling expressed doubts about the government's case.

"I think it was a total waste of time," juror Mark Coombs said. "I'd love to know what this costs, what the taxpayers put out for this."

News of the dismissal was greeted calmly in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the IOC's ruling executive board was wrapping up two days of meetings.

"For the IOC, the Salt Lake City issue was finished in December 1999," IOC President Jacques Rogge said.

Dick Pound of Canada, an IOC member since 1978 who led an IOC inquiry into the scandal and testified earlier this week in Salt Lake City, said Friday in a telephone interview, "I am glad for everybody, and above all Tom and Dave, that there has finally been closure brought to this."

Referring to the IOC's 1999 inquiry, he said, "We never thought that the conduct involved was criminal. We had thought, insofar as our members were concerned, they brought discredit upon the IOC, and we dealt with them accordingly."

Salt Lake City won the 2002 Games in 1995. In November 1998, the first hints of Salt Lake's campaign came to light -- followed by a rush of reports documenting cash, gifts, scholarships for the sons and daughters of IOC members, medical care for members and their relatives. Welch, now 59, was head of the committee that put together Salt Lake City's bid. Johnson, 44, was his deputy.

They have maintained they were merely playing the IOC game the way it was then played.

The prosecution's version was that the game was criminal.

The case centered on allegations of bribery. But U.S. bribery laws don't apply to IOC members.

Moreover, the IOC votes for bid cities in secret, so it would have been impossible in a courtroom setting to prove a straight votes-for-cash or -gifts scheme.

Instead, the 15-count indictment was based on such counts as interstate travel in aid of racketeering, fraud and conspiracy.

Prosecutors rested their case Thursday, and defense attorneys promptly asked the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence. Welch said after the dismissal had been granted, "The bidding process is a process of excess, but it's not a process of bribery.

"IOC members didn't promise votes and you didn't ask for them. When they went [to vote], it didn't matter."

An obvious cause of concern, as juror Coombs pointed out, was the cost of such an aborted prosecution.

Jan L. Handzlik, a Los Angeles attorney and former federal prosecutor who is the immediate past president of the American Bar Assn.'s national white-collar crime committee, asked to estimate the cost of such a case, said, "Clearly the Department of Justice pulled out all the stops in an attempt to make this a successful prosecution.

"It would not be out of the question to estimate that they spent perhaps $2 million, or more."

*

Abrahamson reported from Lausanne, Switzerland. Times wire services contributed to this report.

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