An influential African member of the International Olympic Committee earned $60,000 profit on a Utah land deal arranged through a member of the Salt Lake bid committee, The Associated Press has learned.
Jean-Claude Ganga's purchase and sale of three residential lots is being investigated by a Salt Lake Olympic Committee ethics panel looking into allegations that bribes were used to win the 2002 Winter Games.Ganga, from the Republic of Congo, bought the three luxury home parcels in Pleasant View, a suburb north of Ogden and about 20 miles from the Olympic downhill race course. The purchase was made in September 1995, three months after the IOC awarded Salt Lake the Games.
Ganga was introduced to the seller, a homebuilder, by Bennie Smith, a local businessman and bid committee member who spent eight years wooing African IOC members whose votes were considered crucial for Salt Lake City. Smith is a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
The SLOC ethics panel is trying to determine the source of the cash for Ganga's investment but lacks subpoena power necessary to obtain bank records, a source close to the investigation said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Attorney General Janet Reno said the Justice Department, which is investigating Salt Lake's bid and which does have subpoena power, makes a point of cooperating with parallel investigations.
Attempts to reach Ganga in Paris, Brazzaville and Cameroon were unsuccessful. Smith did not return telephone messages left at his office.
Ganga is president of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa and has been on the IOC since 1986. Smith, a former Brigham Young University and National Football League player and the only African-American involved in Salt Lake's bid, had been assigned to win African votes during the city's failed 1991 effort and again in the successful 1995 bid.
The ethics panel's investigation is one of four inquiries under way to determine whether Salt Lake bribed IOC members by providing them or their relatives with scholarships and expensive gifts, including guns and free medical care. The other investigations are by the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Justice Department.
The investigations were launched after Salt Lake organizers admitted in November that the bid committee had made payments of nearly $400,000 in scholarship funds to 13 people, including six relatives of IOC members, primarily from Africa.
IOC vice president Dick Pound, who heads that agency's investigation, said the purchase of land "of and by itself is neutral." He said he had heard of Ganga's case but had not seen any documents concerning the investment.
IOC members are not allowed to accept gifts of more than $150. They also take an oath to refrain from "political or commercial influence" and abide by the Olympic charter, which calls for "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Ganga has been identified as one of three African IOC members who received free medical care from Salt Lake-based Intermountain Health Care. He reportedly was treated for hepatitis.
K. Brent Keller, a Weber County homebuilder, said that Smith was helping Ganga look for promising land investments when the two first visited Pleasant View in August 1995.
Keller's brother had built a home for Smith in Salt Lake, so Smith contacted him to inquire about investment opportunities, Keller said.
Ganga bought three half-acre, undeveloped lots on the hillside overlooking Ogden and the Great Salt Lake for $25,000 each. Keller then built a road to the lots, put in utilities and a storm basin, and Ganga sold the lots for $45,000 each, one in 1997 and the other two in August 1998, for a profit of $60,000.
"He basically played bank for me," Keller said. Without Ganga's purchase at essentially a wholesale price, Keller didn't have the cash to improve the lots for eventual sale to homebuyers, he said.
Keller was the contractor on the first home, which was recently finished, and plans to break ground next week for the second, to be built on the last two lots sold by Ganga. It is expected to be worth more than $750,000.
The three lots, on the western slope of the Wasatch Range, are northwest and across the range from Snowbasin resort, site of the 2002 downhill races.
Keller said Ganga wrote a check when he bought the land in 1995, and as far as Keller knows, the African used his own cash.
At the top of the warranty deed on file with the Weber County recorder's office is the notation: "When recorded, mail to Jean-Claude Ganga, c/o Benny Smith, Beneco Enterprises, Salt Lake City."
Smith, who actually spells his first name "Bennie," owns Beneco Enterprises, a construction management and engineering company in Salt Lake.
Keller said that after Ganga bought the land, Smith was no longer involved.
David and Merlene Neilson, who bought the twin lots from Ganga in August, said they never met Ganga but worked through Keller and their real estate agent, who dealt with Ganga's Salt Lake attorney, David E. Hardy.
Ganga didn't budge much on the price, Neilson said. "He had a certain profit he wanted to make and he stuck pretty close to it."
Hardy did not return phone calls to his office.