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To indict over bid or not

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said Friday he hopes Tom Welch and Dave Johnson aren't indicted for their roles in the Olympic bid scandal.

"Unless they can show these people intended to profit from it personally, they ought to really think it through before they indict anybody because this is the way apparently Olympic business was done for decades," Hatch, R-Utah, told the Deseret News.

"Knowing Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, they're good guys and they did everything they could to get the Olympics. Who am I to judge them? I'm not about to do that. All I know is they both worked their tails off to get the Olympics for Utah," the senator said.

Hatch said he is not trying to influence the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the more than $1 million in cash, gifts, trips and scholarships handed out to members of the International Olympic Committee during Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

"It's up to the Justice Department," he said. "I can't tell them what to do."

The senator's comments come as the Salt Lake Organizing Committee is mounting a campaign to keep Welch and Johnson from going to trial after both rejected plea agreements this week offered by federal prosecutors.

SLOC President Mitt Romney said he hopes to avoid a lengthy and painful trial, but not necessarily because Welch and Johnson are innocent. There's concern that even if the two are indicted soon, the legal proceedings could drag on long enough to cast a shadow over the 2002 Games themselves.

Welch, who was president of both the bid and organizing committees, and Johnson, who was his vice president, both have said they'd welcome the opportunity to prove themselves in a trial.

It appears, however, that most Utahns disagree with them. According to a poll conducted Friday by SurveyUSA for KSL-TV, 56 percent of respondents drawn from throughout the state said it would be better for the state if Welch and Johnson accepted a plea bargain agreement and spared residents from enduring further reminders of the scandal.

Thirty-five percent said the two should demand a trial.

In a more general question regarding whether the two should plea bargain or be tried, a slimmer plurality said they should accept a plea agreement.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt is taking the high road on this one. In contrast to Hatch and Romney, Leavitt is not pushing for a result one way or the other.

"This is in the hands of the Justice Department," said his spokeswoman Vicki Varela. "We don't have any information that would enable us to make a judgment."

It is not known what charges were contained in the proposed plea agreements, although they likely included some form of tax fraud. The deal proposed for Welch at least is not believed to have included jail time.

Other possibilities involve the so-called loss-of-control theory that would require the government to prove Welch and Johnson kept the government officials and community leaders involved in the bid in the dark about their activities.

Hatch said he is not worried he'll end up on the stand if the case does go to trial. The senator provided letters and other assistance to some of the children of IOC members who sought the bid committee's help to attend college in the United States.

"I would think any elected representative would try to do their best to help," Hatch said. "I did do everything I was asked to do and I felt everything was within the ethical limits, no question about it."

That included Utah's senior senator making appearances at the IOC meeting in 1991 in Birmingham, England, where Salt Lake City lost the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano, Japan, as well as at the IOC meeting in 1995 in Budapest, Hungary, where the IOC gave the Games to Utah.

Hatch said he heard plenty about what the Japanese did to get the Games in 1991. "We lost by four votes because Japanese leadership just basically bought the Olympics. I walked away with a very sour taste in my mouth," he said.

"We were swindled out of it," Hatch said, citing reports of expensive gifts from the Nagano delegation. "I think our people naturally thought if that's the way you've got to get the Olympics, maybe they've got to play the game, too."

The senator noted that Nagano's Olympic organizers destroyed their bid records. "There's not much coming out of the Atlanta (host of the 1996 Summer Games) area, either. It looks like the one group getting picked on is Salt Lake, which doesn't seem right."

Ironically, most involved in the bid process believe Salt Lake City would have obtained the Games even without "playing the game."

"If we hadn't cheated we would have won anyway," said two-time Olympic medalist Picabo Street. "I think that's what everyone is kicking themselves . . . about."

Welch and Johnson have had few defenders. The SLOC Board of Ethics determined that the two men alone were responsible for the scandal, which first surfaced in late 1998. Welch had already left the organizing committee and Johnson was forced out in early 1999.

SLOC is paying the legal bills for both Welch and Johnson as required under its bylaws. Romney has said the total cost is still under $1 million. That could be covered by the organizing committee's insurance, depending upon the outcome of the investigation.

Welch and Johnson have already agreed to give prosecutors another two weeks to decide what to do. They have nothing to lose by sitting tight, according to Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and a former federal prosecutor.

He suggested prosecutors could end up offering the pair a deal that involves pleading only to misdemeanor crimes.

With the possible exception of prosecutors who have spent 19 months putting together their case, that could satisfy everyone involved. A trial would be avoided while Welch and Johnson would not have to admit to serious crimes. "Usually defendants snap at that," Cassell said. "It's viewed as a slap on the wrist."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Contributing: Alan Edwards.