These Games Are for Keeps
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.
For the defense: “Instead of redeeming their clients in terms of their conduct, they’re going to be showing that everyone around them was engaged in the same type of conduct. That’s a difficult kind of case to make.”
And the prosecution: “When you can’t discern a significant moral difference between the defendants and the witnesses, you have a rather problematic criminal case.”
Turley also said that a special concern for prosecutors had to be the considerable impact the Games brought to bear on virtually everyone in Utah:
“Given how wildly popular the Olympics were in Utah, the danger is that some jurors will be silently thankful that [Welch and Johnson] succeeded in their efforts. The irony is that these jurors were indirect beneficiaries of the Olympics.”
Presiding U.S. District Judge David Sam dismissed the case in November 2001. But a federal appeals court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, reinstated it in April.
No matter what happens in the case against Welch and Johnson, prosecutors have already achieved their ultimate goal -- a declaration by the appeals court that the U.S. government has an “undeniable interest” in the Olympic bid process.
A plea bargain on the eve of trial appeared highly unlikely. Welch and Johnson have rejected deals before.
Instead, the parade of witnesses -- more than 80 are on the prosecution and defense lists -- is due to begin Monday.