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Salt Lake bid case still not over

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Attorneys for embattled Olympic bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson have learned that the federal government plans to pursue its case against the two men.

"Earlier this week I received a call from the Justice Department advising me that the appeals were going to proceed," Johnson's attorney, Max Wheeler, told the Deseret News Friday. "The Solicitor's Office has approved both appeals, and our efforts to stop those, at least at this stage, have failed."

Welch's attorney, Blair Brown, confirmed he also received similar news from the Justice Department this week.

Defense attorneys met with Justice Department officials on Jan. 3 to urge them to halt prosecution of Welch and Johnson, accused of using more than $1 million in cash, scholarships and gifts to influence International Olympic Committee members during Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

"We felt that we presented compelling reasons to the government to proceed no further with the appeal or the prosecution," Brown said. "We were hopeful that they would agree with us, and they didn't."

Meantime, Welch and Johnson are on a list of more than 600 community leaders the Salt Lake Organizing Committee is inviting to the dress rehearsal of the Games' opening ceremonies. It is the first time either has been asked to participate in a SLOC event since the scandal surfaced.

Federal prosecutors have until Jan. 23 to file their brief with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. They previously filed a notice of appeal to U.S. District Judge David Sam's dismissal of the 15 racketeering, fraud and conspiracy charges against the men.

This is the first time defense attorneys have received conclusive word that prosecutors will pursue the case.

A Department of Justice spokesman on Friday refused to confirm the department intends to proceed with the appeals.

"We're due to make a filing with the court by Wednesday, and we will meet the deadline. What the filing will be, I cannot say," spokesman Bryan Sierra said.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft also flatly refused to comment on the matter Friday.

During a news conference with reporters on Olympic security in Salt Lake City, Ashcroft was twice asked if the Justice Department was still committed to appealing its case against Welch and Johnson.

"I'm not going to comment on matters under consideration in the Justice Department that we consider to be active matters," Ashcroft replied.

Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney said Friday he doesn't intend to discuss the pending appeal with Ashcroft. The two men were scheduled to tour Olympic venues in downtown Salt Lake City Friday and have dinner together.

"I think he made it very clear that he is not here to discuss active items relating to prosecution. And this organization does not want to become involved in that discussion in any way, shape or form," Romney said.

Wheeler said that while the news of the continued prosecution is disappointing, it is not entirely unexpected.

"Unfortunately, it's not a surprise," Wheeler said. "But we were hopeful that cooler heads might prevail back there."

Wheeler believes it is impractical to continue the case from both a legal and a practical standpoint.

"In my opinion, it's a waste of government resources and certainly a waste of money," he said. "Why the government thinks otherwise has never been explained to us."

Pride is likely an issue, Wheeler said, as the federal government has "invested a significant amount of time and money in this case, and it's difficult to walk away from a case that you have invested in so completely."

Brown declined to speculate about the government's motives, saying only he is confident the men's defense team will prevail before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He expects the issue to be resolved in 12 to 18 months, and Welch will "ultimately be vindicated."

Wheeler agreed. "I think in the end they will be vindicated, whether the court upholds the dismissal or whether we go to trial. It's just that the price to pay for that vindication is very high, in terms of money, in terms of emotion, in terms of impact to the community."

Should the case proceed to trial, Wheeler said many high-profile community leaders they believe to be involved in the bribery scandal ? including Gov. Mike Leavitt and Sen. Orrin Hatch ? will be called to testify.

"Dave certainly doesn't relish the thought of besmirching reputations of people that claim they didn't know and in fact they did, but that is our defense," Wheeler said. "The government made it our defense by alleging that Tom and Dave did this secretly and without the knowledge of other people."

Contributing: Derek Jensen and Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com