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Pressure building to reach a plea for former Olympic leaders

SHARE Pressure building to reach a plea for former Olympic leaders

Never mind that the tense negotiations broke down this week between former Salt Lake Olympic leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson and federal prosecutors.

The real wheeling and dealing is going on away from the bargaining table, as Utah leaders attempt to pressure the two sides to come to some kind of arrangement that will prevent a trial that could damage the 2002 Winter Games.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee is using its political connections in Washington, D.C., as well as local community leaders to impress upon both the U.S. Department of Justice and the two would-be defendants that a trial should be avoided at all costs.

"It's not typical that outside pressure is involved in a criminal case. But this is not your typical criminal case," said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and a former federal prosecutor.

Just what effect the pressure will have is unclear. Both sides have apparently agreed to ex-

tend the deadline to file federal charges by two weeks, an agreement that Cassell suggested isn't likely to produce a palatable deal — without some help from outside.

"It sounds to me like those negotiations are at a complete impasse," he told the Deseret News Friday from San Diego, where he is attending the annual meeting of the Utah Bar Association. "What this suggests to me is that the Justice Department is less sure of itself.

"Usually you say, 'OK, this is our agreement. Nope? OK, we'll indict.' The fact that they're hemming and hawing . . . may be one sign that somebody's calling their bluff," he said.

The new "tolling agreement" signed this week surprised Cassell. "I think the thing to read into this is there's now discussions by . . . outside interests, SLOC or whoever it might be who are gearing up to do something with the Justice Department."

SLOC President Mitt Romney made it clear Thursday the heat is on. He briefed members of the SLOC Management Committee during their closed-door session reportedly asking them to do what they could to influence the outcome of the plea negotiations.

That includes talking with Welch and Johnson, a suggestion that's striking some as bizarre.

"It's ridiculous. The implication is somehow they owe these people something. I don't know why they would after how they've been treated," said former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck, a longtime friend of Welch's.

Welch and Johnson were singled out by the SLOC Board of Ethics as being responsible for the more than $1 million in cash, gifts, scholarships and trips handed out to members of the International Olympic Committee during the bid.

The pair have long said that the government officials and community leaders involved in the bid, and later charged with overseeing the organizing committee, knew what was being done to win the IOC's vote.

Neither Welch nor Johnson nor their attorneys could not be reached for comment Friday.

Romney told reporters after Thursday's meeting he "didn't want to put pressure on any party, but I hope the discussions will lead to a resolution that does not involve a lengthy, painful trial."

He declined to comment "on any effort that relates to possible settlement between the parties. It is fair to say that we believe that our organization does have an interest in the outcome."

SLOC's attorney in Washington, D.C., Beth Wilkinson of the powerful law firm of Latham & Watkins, is "regularly working with Justice," he said. Wilkinson, a former federal prosecutor who helped win a conviction in the Oklahoma City bombing, is well-connected.

So, though, is Welch's attorney in Washington, D.C., William Taylor. Hired by Welch at the beginning of the year, Taylor has close ties to the White House, having represented several Clinton administration officials in Whitewater.

The Justice Department had no comment on the increased political pressure from Utah. Spokesman John Russell said only that he doubted charges would be filed Friday.

Prosecutors had been expected to indict Welch and Johnson this week. The chief prosecutor in the case, Richard Wiedis, also declined to comment on the new agreement that extends negotiations.

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com ; hans@desnews.com