A federal judge today threw out the bribery case against Salt Lake Olympic bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, citing a lack of evidence.
In acquitting the pair of 15 felony counts, U.S. District Judge David Sam rebuked government prosecutors saying, "I have never seen a criminal case brought to trail that was so devoid of . . . criminal intent or evil purpose."
Sam called the prosecution "misplaced" and said the case "offends my sense of justice."
Welch smiled broadly as the judge read his decision before a packed courtroom, while Johnson remained stoic, though later reached to wipe away a tear.
"Last night was probably the longest night of my life and that five minutes before the judge, the sweetest," Welch said outside the courtroom.
"As I look at the Olympic saga that hopefully closes today, I certainly wouldn't have done it had I known the terrible price we'd pay as a family. But in saying that, I also think that had we not done that, had we not given those years, this city might have missed a wonderful opportunity that those Games provided us. I think the world does looks differently at us today and hopefully we look differently at ourselves."
Outside the federal courthouse, Johnson uttered an oft repeated refrain during the five-week trail: "It's a good day. We've waited a long time for this."
Prosecutors had little comment as they left the courthouse. The government's lead attorney, Richard Wiedis, said Sam had been "too hard" on them.
|TranscriptTranscript of Judge David Sam's rulingRequires Adobe Acrobat.|
Attorneys for Welch and Johnson had asked the judge Thursday to dismiss all charges for lack of evidence after the government rested its fraud, conspiracy and racketeering case against the pair.
"It's time to put an end to this case," Welch's attorney, Bill Taylor, told the judge during more than an hour of arguments on what's known as a "Rule 29" motion. "The government simply has not proven its case."
Federal prosecutor Wiedis, however, said that "to dismiss this case now is to deprive the jury of its right to make a statement that Olympic corruption must be stopped" and that what the defendants did on behalf of all Utahns was wrong.
Sam, who has been seen as sympathetic to the defense throughout the trial, announced after hearing from both sides in the case that he would issue his ruling on the motion today.
The defense had considered not putting on a case but now has a witness ready to take the stand if the motion is denied and the trial continues. Should that happen, the case is likely to go the jury within a week or so.
Welch and Johnson have a lot at stake in this trial. Both men are charged with 15 felony counts that each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
They were indicted in July 2000 in connection with the more than $1 million in cash and gifts that were bestowed on members of the International Olympic Committee to influence the vote for the 2002 Winter Games.
Sam dismissed the charges in 2001, but the government appealed. In April, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver sent the case back to Utah and to Sam. He's made no secret of his frustration with the prosecution during the trial, even cutting off key lines of questioning.
The government ended its case with a "summary witness," FBI agent and accountant Paul Bingham. He testified to long lists of payments made to IOC members and their family members as well as several secret contracts with consultants to the bid.
The money went for everything from college tuition and numerous living expenses for the children of several IOC members to paying off the campaign debts of an IOC member from Chile to trips to Paris and even Disneyland for others.
Bingham said under cross-examination that he believed the money paid amounted to bribes, but the defense attacked the lists he compiled and suggested that the payments may well have been legitimate.
Taylor said in arguing to dismiss the case that the government never explained the defendants' motive, key to the charges. "There is obviously some evidence of Mr. Welch and Mr. Johnson granting some requests of IOC members, but there's no evidence of why," he said.
Both Taylor and Johnson's attorney, Max Wheeler, emphasized that the government never produced any victims in the case.
Prosecutors contend Welch and Johnson hid their dealings from the business and community leaders charged with overseeing the bid. But one of those bid trustees, banking executive Spence Eccles, testified this week that the trial was "ill-conceived" and no crime had been committed. Then the chairman of the bid, Frank Joklik, said he didn't consider what was done to win the Games as bribery.
"This has to be a first, your honor," Wheeler said about the turnaround in testimony of the case's alleged fraud victims. "I think if you could get into the heart of hearts of these two gentlemen, they would hope you would throw it out."
Wiedis, however, said the government has an interest in stamping out corruption in the Olympic bid process. "The good people of Utah have the right to have an honest and fair campaign for the Olympics," he said.
Instead, Welch and Johnson used phony contracts and tapped a program intended to benefit underprivileged athletes in Third World countries to "pay these IOC members off," Wiedis said.
"Why not just go to the board and say they'd like a program to benefit IOC members?" he asked. "If they wanted to be honest, why not just tell the truth?"
Motions to dismiss are almost always made but seldom granted. "The rule is there for a reason," said Brigham Young University law professor Michael Goldsmith, a member of the defense team. "It's not usurping the jury's function at all. It's basically saying there's not enough evidence to get the case to the jury."
If the judge does dismiss the case today, his decision could not be appealed.
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