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These Games Are for Keeps

Trial of Salt Lake Olympic bid leaders Welch and Johnson on 15 felony charges starts today, and they could face 75 years in prison if convicted.

October 31, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — The 2002 Games have been widely heralded as one of the best Winter Olympics ever. The U.S. team won a record 34 medals, the Games turned a $100-million profit and Utah staked its claim as America's premier winter sports destination. Moreover, Salt Lake City's highways and railways received a big-time upgrade in time for the Games.

It's against that backdrop that the two men who brought the Games to Salt Lake are standing trial. If convicted, each faces up to 75 years in prison.

Tom Welch, who led the bid, and Dave Johnson, his chief lieutenant, are charged with 15 felonies in connection with more than $1 million in cash, gifts and other inducements showered on members of the International Olympic Committee. Opening statements in the case are due to begin today.

The trial promises to revisit, and perhaps reveal new details linked to, the worst corruption scandal in Olympic history. Sparked by the late 1998 revelations of how Salt Lake won the Games, 10 IOC members resigned or were expelled in early 1999. Later that year, the IOC enacted a 50-point reform plan that included a ban on visits by members to cities bidding for the Olympics.

The witness list, disclosed Tuesday as jury selection began, includes Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles, the senior IOC member in the United States; Jim Easton of Van Nuys, now an IOC vice president; Andrew Young, the diplomat who played a key role in Atlanta's winning the 1996 Summer Games; Billy Payne, who led the Atlanta bid and then ran the 1996 Olympics; and Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, confirmed Tuesday as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Also on the witness list, and adding to the international intrigue, is John Kim, son of Kim Un Yong, an IOC vice president from South Korea. The younger Kim, indicted in 1999 by U.S. authorities on immigration fraud charges, was arrested in Sofia, Bulgaria, in May, and remains in custody there pending extradition to the United States, which he is contesting.

John Kim said in a telephone interview this month that there were no grounds for extradition. If extradited, he said, he has no intention of testifying against Welch and Johnson.

The great unknown in the case is whether the U.S. government -- which traditionally acts in high-profile cases only when it is abundantly confident of victory -- can get a conviction in Utah in a matter involving the most triumphant event in recent Utah history.

The trial had been expected to last at least until December. Jury selection, however, has taken far longer than expected, with many in the jury pool of 83 being familiar with the people, places and events at issue.

And, this being Utah, such familiarity breeds -- well, familiarity. Juror No. 61, for instance, said she knew juror No. 29 when No. 29 was young.

"I knew him as a little boy growing up," No. 61 said, adding with a laugh, "I think he's still afraid of me."

Juror No. 82 said she was a distant cousin of Leavitt's, both hailing from Cedar City, Utah.

And No. 7 said her son's mother-in-law, Sydney Fonnesbeck, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman, is one of the defense team's potential witnesses.

Welch, 59, said of the case as he entered the courthouse for the first rounds of jury selection, "I think it's a travesty, a waste of taxpayers' money. I certainly know it's been a waste of mine."

Heading into the courthouse earlier this week, Johnson, 44, said, "We've waited for this for five years."

Prosecutors have declined comment.

The facts of the case are largely not in dispute.

In November 1998, the first hints of how Salt Lake had won the bid three years earlier came to light -- followed by a rush of disclosures involving cash, presents, scholarships for the sons and daughters of IOC members, medical care for members and their relatives, and more.

Welch and Johnson have maintained that they were merely playing the IOC game the way the game was then played.

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

The prosecution's position involves a complicated reading of the law, one that has not been widely endorsed.

The key obstacle facing prosecutors is that the case essentially revolves around allegations of bribery. But U.S. bribery laws don't apply to IOC members. Instead, the case against Welch and Johnson includes charges of interstate travel in aid of racketeering, fraud and conspiracy.

There's also a practical consideration at work. IOC members award the Games by secret vote. It would be impossible to prove that any one vote was the result of any particular gift.

The challenge facing prosecutors is to lay out instances of alleged bribery, then argue that the Salt Lake bid committee was defrauded. The defense is expected to contend that no one was defrauded -- on the grounds that anyone of note in Utah knew full well what Welch and Johnson were doing.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has closely followed the case, said both sides have their work cut out.

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