The unexpected resignation of Gov. Mike Leavitt's top watchdog over efforts to organize the 2002 Winter Games has set the governor's office scrambling for a replacement.

John Fowler, who has served as the state Olympic officer, informed a surprised Leavitt last week of his decision to resign. The resignation was announced Wednesday to the governor's cabinet.

"It is disappointing to me that circumstances require him to leave, but I understand his decision," Leavitt told the Deseret News Thursday. "John was critical in leading us through very difficult challenges. I have nothing but gratitude for the service he has given the state."

Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Varela said Fowler has a great opportunity in the private sector, "one of those chances of a lifetime he could not pass up."

Fowler agreed, saying, "It was not something I was looking to do, but as I started to look at how far we have come and how much we have accomplished, the confidence I have in the work of the organizing committee, it was not a hard decision in some ways to make."

On the other hand, he said it was hard to leave "before we are at end of road. Still, I feel major things have been accomplished, and I feel good about that."

Fowler will go to work for a major publicly traded corporation headquartered in Florida. He would not disclose the company or his new responsibilities pending his introduction to the board of directors next week. Friday is his last day with the state.

Leavitt has asked Nolan Karras, Leavitt's liaison with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, to head the search committee that will find Fowler's replacement. Leavitt said he hopes to narrow the field of candidates within 30 days.

"It's not a time we can have that critical role unfilled," Leavitt said. "Any new person needs time to get up to speed, and the sooner the better."

Fowler's duties will be divided among Leavitt's staff until a replacement is named.

Fowler told the governor he had met the goals he had set in regard to establishing an Olympic budget review process, terms for a contingency budget and various SLOC oversight procedures.

Fowler said he is also proud of his efforts to negotiate a land trade with the federal government for an Olympic Village at Fort Douglas, working to make state-owned Soldier Hollow the venue for biathlon and cross-country ski events, and working to pass key pieces of legislation that make the Games more financially viable.

He is also particularly proud of his efforts to coordinate a financing package for SLOC, one of the most complicated deals he has ever been involved with.

"It was gratifying to see that process come to fruition," Fowler said. "I think my involvement in working to help get the process restructured and reorganized and see the new (SLOC) team do so very well has been tremendously gratifying. This offer came out of the blue, and as I considered how well things were under control I candidly felt I could slip away and be grateful for the privilege to be involved."

Fowler, an accountant by profession, joined the governor's office in September 1997 after serving in the Quorums of the Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Since then, he has witnessed the departure of most of SLOC's top managers and their replacement by SLOC President Mitt Romney and his own team.

"John and Mitt had a mutual respect for one another," said SLOC spokeswoman Caroline Shaw. "It was a strong working relationship, and John offered many contributions to the Games. We thank him and wish him well in his new endeavor."

You can reach Jerry D. Spangler by e-mail at