Acquitted: Duo refused to cave in

Published: Saturday, Dec. 6 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

Defense attorney Max Wheeler praises the action of Judge David Sam in acquitting Welch and Johnson, which he said was what most people wanted to see happen. "There is absolutely no reason for this case," Wheeler declared.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

The Sunday before Salt Lake Olympic bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson went to trial, government prosecutors quietly offered them what amounted to a walk — a plea bargain on a single misdemeanor tax charge.

Their attorneys thought they should at least consider taking the deal.

But both men chose instead to fight the 15 felony counts of fraud, conspiracy and racketeering the government had leveled against them, charges that could have sent them to prison for years.

The gamble paid off when U.S. District Judge David Sam acquitted them of all charges Friday in an extraordinary ruling from the bench in which he stated the government's case "offends my sense of justice."

Welch told reporters shortly after the decision that the government's five-year effort to get a conviction in the scandal surrounding Salt Lake's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games had tested his faith in the legal system.

"Last night was probably the longest night of my life, and that five minutes before the judge (Friday) the sweetest," an emotional Welch said. "When you listen to the words of the judge today, our system is a great system and it works. I just thank God for it, and for people like Judge Sam."

Johnson, too, was grateful that the judge stood up to the government.

"A lot of people could have said, 'This is wrong, what they're doing to these two people.' They were all afraid. Judge Sam did it before and and he did it again today."

No surprise

Sam's blistering ruling went beyond what anyone expected, even though he'd made his frustration with the prosecution clear throughout the five-week-long trial. The judge went so far as to cut off the prosecutors' efforts to elicit key testimony from several witnesses.

He'd already dismissed the charges against Welch and Johnson in 2001, only to see the government successfully challenge his decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That court sent the case back to Utah in April.

Speaking from the bench at what would have been the first day of the defense's case, Sam announced he was acquitting Welch and Johnson of all charges. Welch immediately broke into a broad grin. A few moments later, Johnson wiped away a tear.

That decision came as no surprise. But then the judge went on to say that in his 40 years of experience with the criminal justice system, he'd "never seen a criminal case brought to trial that was so devoid of . . . criminal intent or evil purpose."

He mocked the prosecutors' attempts to "represent themselves as the protectors of our moral values" in Utah and of the "sacred standards" of the International Olympic Committee's charter as misplaced in light of the government's lack of evidence.

What offended his sense of justice, Sam told a packed courtroom, was that the federal government's case pitted "Salt Lake City and the entire state of Utah, welcome recipients of the efforts of Mr. Welch and Mr. Johnson," against the defendants.

Finally the judge said he'd heard much about the $1 million in cash and gifts given to IOC members during the bid campaign. Now, Sam said, he'd like to know how much taxpayers' money was spent in investigating and prosecuting Welch and Johnson.

Too harsh?

On his way out of the courthouse, prosecutor Richard Wiedis said the judge had been "too hard" on the government and declined further comment. The Department of Justice issued a statement expressing disappointment and regret that the case didn't go to a jury.

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