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Judge tosses out Olympic bribery case in Utah

Scolds prosecutors for lack of evidence

SALT LAKE CITY -- With a stinging attack on prosecutors, a federal judge threw out the case yesterday against two civic leaders accused of bribery for lavishing $1 million in cash, gifts, and favors on Olympic officials to bring the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City.

The ruling by US District Judge David Sam came midway through the trial of Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, and all but closes the book on the worst scandal in Olympic history.

The judge said that in his 18 years on the federal bench, he had never seen a case so devoid of "criminal intent or evil purpose." He said the evidence never met the legal standard for bribery, and the case "offends my sense of justice."

"Enough is enough," the 70-year-old Sam said.

The judge formally acquitted the men, which means the government cannot appeal, because retrying them would amount to double jeopardy.

Welch sat stoically, while Johnson wiped away tears and gave his lawyer a long hug.

Welch, 59, was head of the committee of civic leaders that put together Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics; Johnson was his deputy.

Prosecutors had argued that the two defrauded their overseers by taking money from a humanitarian program to dole out gifts to the International Olympic Committee delegates who later selected Salt Lake City for the games in 1995.

The gifts included trips to Disneyland, stopovers at Paris hotels, guns, car repairs, bathroom furnishings, a Rolex watch, basketball tickets, shopping sprees, and college scholarships for IOC members' relatives.

Welch and Johnson insisted they committed no crime, contending that the gifts were merely business as usual in the Olympic bidding process and that other countries did it, too. Both refused to accept plea bargains.

They were the only people charged in a scandal that resulted in the expulsion or resignation of 10 IOC members.

"Several times during the history of this case, I have heard [prosecutors] represent themselves as protectors of moral values here in the state of Utah," the judge said after the prosecution had completed its case. "How commendable and noteworthy. But when considered in light of the evidence of the government's evidence in this case, how misplaced."

Prosecutor Richard Wiedis said the judge had been "too hard" on the government.

"In our view, the evidence that the jury was permitted to hear was more than sufficient for the case to go to verdict," the Justice Department said in a statement. "We continue to believe that the citizens of the United States, especially the people of the state of Utah, had the right to have this criminal case decided by a jury."

The humanitarian program that was used to pay for most of the gifts was actually meant for impoverished athletes from developing countries, but just 10 percent of the money "went to sports equipment -- soccer balls for athletes who needed and deserved them," the prosecutor said.

Even if the case had reached the jury, the prosecution would have been in trouble. At least eight jurors polled informally after the verdict expressed doubts about the government's case.

"I think it was a total waste of time," juror Mark Coombs said.

The judge also threw out the case in 2001 before it reached trial, sparing Salt Lake City the embarrassment of a courtroom spectacle during the Olympic games. A federal appeals court restored the charges in April, saying the government deserved a chance to put on its case.

Throughout the trial, Sam repeatedly ruled against prosecutors on evidence and frequently shut down their lines of questioning. He also loudly admonished them for arguing with his bench rulings.

Max Wheeler, Johnson's lawyer, said the government did little but "put lots of money in front of this jury and ask them to speculate as to the purpose of those payments. We have not heard from a single witness of a person being bribed."

Some of the government's own witnesses disputed the allegations, including Olympic trustee Spencer Eccles, the patriarch of a wealthy Utah banking clan who donated $500,000 for the Olympic pursuit. He turned on prosecutors Monday, calling their case "ill-conceived."

Welch lawyer Bill Taylor said there was no evidence that the two men lied to anyone about their spending, which was available for board members and auditors to review on a general ledger.

"Every nickel, just about, is accounted for," Taylor said. "You don't engage in a scheme to defraud by leaving a paper trail."

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