Mitt Romney just didn't want to talk much about the effect of the first conviction in the ongoing criminal investigation into the scandal surrounding Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.
Romney, who met with local reporters Wednesday to mark his first six months as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, preferred instead to discuss his progress on what he's identified as his key priorities."There are things that make your job easier and there are things that make your job harder," Romney said when pressed about the effect of last week's guilty plea by a local businessman in connection with the scandal.
He said he has not had any contact with the U.S. Department of Justice. "I want in no way to interfere with or be seen as interfering with this investigation," Romney said.
Utah businessman David E. Simmons pleaded guilty Aug. 3 to a misdemeanor tax violation related to his hiring of the son of a prominent International Olympic Committee member at the request of bid officials. One of Romney's priorities is, of course, raising enough money to cover the cost of the Olympics. Romney has already recommended reducing the Games budget by $113 million, to $1.34 billion.
To meet the reduced budget, organizers still need to raise some $187 million from corporate sponsors. It's not yet clear what effect, if any, the criminal prosecutions will have on their interest.
Romney said he heard little about the case last week during vis- its with media, business and political leaders in Washington, D.C., and other East Coast cities.
"I'm told that we as a community are more focused on the scandal than the country at large," Romney said. "We just have to keep doing our job . . . and let the investigation take whatever course it takes."
At least one Olympic sponsor agrees there's not a lot of interest any more in the scandal outside of Utah. That's very different than when the scandal first surfaced late last year.
The story made headlines around the world as details unfolded of the more than $1 million spent by Salt Lake bidders to influence the IOC's vote on where to send the 2002 Winter Games.
"I think a lot of people are past this," said Randy Lynch, who oversees the US WEST sponsorship of the 2002 Winter Games and the U.S. Olympic teams from his Denver office.
But Lynch said the recent court action could have an effect. "This kind of stuff continually being dredged up hurts sponsors," he said. "It distracts from the purpose and the intent of the Olympics."
Romney said one of his priorities is trying to ensure SLOC abides by the highest standards of ethics. He has instituted an annual ethics compliance report required of all employees and board members.
As for raising money, he said his biggest challenge is getting the $171 million needed from the federal government for security, transportation and other needs.
And Romney said he's not worried about SLOC leaving behind bills for taxpayers. Repaying all of the $59 million invested by taxpayers in building Olympic facilities and other obligations, though, is another story.
"The question is not how much we'll leave them in debt but how much we can repay," he said. SLOC is contractually obligated to pay a total of $139 million, including payments for using facilities at the University of Utah.