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Surprise ruling for Welch, Johnson

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A federal judge Monday dismissed four of 15 federal counts against Olympic bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson and also vacated the pair's July 30 trial date.

In a three-page ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge David Sam overturned decisions by a federal magistrate, who in June upheld the racketeering charges.

"Among other reasons, the court's decision is based on the conclusion that the Utah commercial bribery statute, . . . the underlying state law defendants allegedly violated or intended to violate, is ambiguous and unconstitutionally vague as applied in this case," Sam wrote.

The judge said the Utah law is not a "valid predicate for the government Travel Act charged."

The federal Travel Act relies on a rarely used Utah bribery statute. After careful review of the act's 40-year history, Sam said at a hearing last week that it is "not originally intended to substitute a federal penalty for an infraction of state law."

Federal prosecutors on Monday would not comment on the unexpected ruling, nor would they discuss whether they would appeal Sam's decision.

Welch and Johnson still face 10 fraud charges and one count of conspiracy. However, when they will face trial on the remaining counts remains up in the air.

In vacating the July 30 start date, Sam said he would reset it if necessary.

University of Utah law professor Erik Luna said Sam's ruling may have ruined the prosecution's case.

"As a matter of law this does not destroy the prosecution's case, they still legally can proceed on the 11 counts, but as a practical matter the elimination of these four important charges may very well gut their case."

Luna also said the vacating of the trial date could mean one of three things: The judge anticipates the case won't be going to trial, the government needs more time given the four dropped charges or the judge anticipated an appeal by the prosecution to the 10th Circuit Court.

Bill Taylor, Welch's attorney, said Monday the ruling leaves his client hopeful for a future resolution to this case.

"I have thought that we've been right from the beginning," Taylor said. "Our position hasn't changed any and I think we're very pleased that we were able to persuade the judge that the prosecution was not correctly broad on the basis of the Utah charges.

"It's very nice to get that ruling and we look forward to resolving the rest of the case."

Defense attorneys maintain that the entire 15-count indictment against their clients hinge on the four racketeering charges.

Taylor said Sam's ruling opens the door for further discussion about the validity of the remaining charges, although he cautions "it's one step at a time."

Welch and Johnson are accused of conspiracy, racketeering and fraud in connection with more than $1 million in cash, scholarships and gifts given to International Olympic Committee members during Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

In a joint statement released today by Welch and Johnson, the men said, "We are delighted at the court's ruling today. We believe it confirms what we have said from the beginning: We committed no crime. The Salt Lake Bid Committee conducted its bid consistently with the advice we were given and the conduct of other successful bid cities.

"We hope Judge Sam will agree that this entire indictment must be dismissed and that we and our families can resume our lives and our community can celebrate the Winter Games without a cloud hanging over them."

International Olympic Committee officials in Moscow welcomed news of Sam's decision. "If the whole issue would quietly go away without interfering with the judicial process, that would be the best thing for Salt Lake and for the Olympic movement," said IOC Vice President Kevan Gosper, of Australia. "All people want to do is move on."


Contributing: Derek Jensen, Pat Reavy and Lisa Riley Roche


E-MAIL: mtitze@desnews.com ; awelling@desnews.com