Mitt Romney wishes he had never ever been in touch with Tom Welch — to whom he has spoken only once, by telephone last summer.

That one call has caused much headache for Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, since Welch — the then-embattled former Olympic bid leader — now says the SLOC boss offered money if Welch would accept a plea deal for his role in Salt Lake's Olympic bid scandal.

Welch says Romney pledged to honor a $1 million consulting contract withheld from Welch after the scandal broke.

"He said he would look into a way of getting me my compensation if I took the deal," Welch told the Deseret News on Friday.

Romney, however, insists that he never attempted to coerce Welch into pleading guilty to federal charges stemming from the scandal.

In a meeting Friday with the Deseret News editorial board, Romney said he wanted to set straight the public record regarding his involvement with the former Olympic bid leader.

Those involved said Romney was pressured to talk with Welch on the telephone last summer by Boyer Co. President Kem Gardner — friend to both Welch and Romney — and Salt Lake businessman Mickey Gallivan. Gardner initiated the call at a charity event, saying he wanted Romney to tell Welch where the former bid leader stood with the organizing committee.

Now the only thing Welch, Romney and Gardner — who were all on the phone at the same time — can agree on is that Romney never offered to pay Welch's legal fees in exchange for a guilty plea.

Instead, "Mitt said in the course of the conversation that (SLOC) would honor any obligation they had" with Welch, Gardner said Friday.

The "obligations" to which Romney was referring are at the core of the dispute.

Gardner doesn't know what the SLOC boss meant; Welch and Romney offer conflicting views.

Adding to the confusion was Romney's advice during the phone call that Welch plead guilty.

"I thought it was in his own best interest to consider pleading guilty," Romney said. "That was clearly wrong. He's done much better on his own. That was bad advice."

Welch, from his California home, said Friday he thought the obligation about which Romney was speaking was the $1 million consulting contract. In Welch's mind Romney was telling him to plead guilty, erase the possibility of a federal trial during the Olympics and gain $1 million.

That's not true, Romney insists.

SLOC has never considered the consulting contract as part of its legal obligation to Welch, Romney said.

The obligation he was referring to, Romney said, were legal fees Welch might incur during his battle with federal prosecutors. But, Romney allowed Friday, those fees would be nil if Welch pleaded guilty, since SLOC wouldn't reimburse a guilty Welch.

A few months after the phone call, Welch and fellow former bid leader Dave Johnson were slapped with federal fraud, conspiracy and racketeering charges as prosecutors claimed they had bribed International Olympic Committee members in the effort to win the 2002 Winter Games.

In attempting to corroborate Romney's account of the phone call, the Deseret News obtained a confidential letter penned by SLOC attorney Beth Wilkinson and sent to Johnson's attorney Max Wheeler and Welch's attorney William Taylor.

"Regardless of what you may have read in the newspapers or heard from reporters," Wilkinson wrote, "SLOC will not make any promises or offer any incentives to your clients to induce them to accept a plea. If your clients have a different impression, please accept this letter as clarifying SLOC's intention."

The case against Welch and Johnson has since been dismissed by U.S. District Judge David Sam.

Federal prosecutors have maintained Welch and Johnson's guilt and expect to appeal Sam's decision.

Romney said Friday he doesn't know what part Welch and Johnson played in the scandal but acknowledged others likely played a role.

"I've been very, very careful never to ascribe to them full blame for the bid scandal," Romney said. "I don't believe they're solely responsible for the bid scandal."

Those words were music to Welch's ears.

"I am glad to see Mitt recognize that" others might have been involved, Welch said.

Regardless of what was said on the phone that summer night, one thing is certain: Romney wishes it had never happened.

"It was a very bad idea, and I do not intend to ever do it again," Romney said. "There was nothing accomplished by it. Only misunderstanding and miscommunication."

If Romney does ever speak to Welch again, he said it will be by paper — probably with an attorney present.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com