SALT LAKE CITY — Seventeen years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into bribery allegations against officials of another internationally known sports entity, the committee that brought the 2002 Winter Olympics to Utah.
That investigation resulted in 15 counts of fraud, conspiracy and racketeering against bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, charges that were thrown out by a federal judge midway through their trial in 2003, ending the case.
By then, changes such as limiting travel to bid cities had been made by the International Olympic Committee as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee to lessen the opportunities for members to solicit or accept what could be seen as bribes.
But the legacy of the federal government's investigation into more than $1 million in cash, scholarships, gifts and other inducements provided to IOC members to boost Salt Lake City's bid may not be over.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced a 47-count indictment against nine international soccer officials and five corporate executives for charges including racketeering and money laundering.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the alleged corruption involves two generations of soccer officials who abused their positions to "acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks."
Many decisions by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, known as FIFA, have been mired in controversy, including the award of upcoming World Cup competitions to Russia and Qatar.
"I think the fact that the federal government was willing to go after the corruption surrounding the Salt Lake Games certainly did set a precedent," said Fraser Bullock, the chief operating officer of the Salt Lake Olympics.
Bullock, who along with Mitt Romney, took over the troubled Salt Lake Organizing Committee after the federal investigation was underway, said the Justice Department was "probably more comfortable stepping into this arena" as a result.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the bribery allegations against Salt Lake "made the government more sensitive to the nature of that problem" when it came to the competition for lucrative sporting events.
"Had the Olympic scandal never occurred, the government might not have been looking as carefully at what was going on with the international sports organization, figuring, 'This is a sports organization. We don't have to worry about that,'" he said.
Former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was governor at the time of the Salt Lake scandal, said the federal government "went beyond what was reasonable" in making what turned out to be an unsuccessful case against Welch and Johnson.
"It was a bruising experience for everyone involved and a regrettable one. It was demonstrated it was also unnecessary," Leavitt said. "In hindsight, it was obvious the federal government overreacted in our situation."
The former governor said while he did not know enough about the allegations surrounding FIFA to comment, he hoped the federal government "would not make the same error" this time.
Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who now teaches at the University of Utah law school, said he believes prosecutors have a stronger chance of succeeding with the case being made against FIFA.
"The allegations here against FIFA are stronger," Cassell said. "This involves sort of a direct quid pro quo, kickbacks and payoffs in a way the earlier Olympics case did not," as well as much more money.
He also said there appears to be more international cooperation in the FIFA case. Swiss authorities in Zurich arrested and detained seven defendants charged in the indictment at the luxury hotel where FIFA was meeting.
Cassell said he was a critic of the government's case against Welch and Johnson because they "were just doing what everyone wanted them to do," not, as alleged, cheating the bid committee by trying to buy votes.
Bullock said he appreciated the willingness of the U.S. government to take on FIFA, which he described as a "much more tightly controlled" and much less open group than the IOC.
"The fact the U.S. government is willing to crack down is a big benefit not just to the United States, but to the entire world," Bullock said. "Because it's not fair to other countries who are not willing to participate in corruption."
He said the Justice Department's action "is now forcing collaboration with FIFA to be able to make sure corruption is eliminated to the extent possible and there is a level playing field for bid cities and all of the things involving FIFA."
Still, Bullock said, in many countries around the world, "corruption is the way things are done. It's a normal operating procedure, which is very unfortunate, but it's the way it is."
Bullock, who has remained involved with the IOC since the Salt Lake Olympics, also said it may be time for the Switzerland-based organization to take another look at how the bid process is working.
"FIFA has been out there, somewhat unregulated, and now we're seeing the impact of that. For the IOC, I think it makes it easier for them to enforce their policies and maybe even re-examine them to some degree," Bullock said.
He said he doesn't believe the United States' efforts against FIFA will cause problems for American cities seeking the Olympics, including a possible 2026 Winter Games bid by Salt Lake.
Cassell wasn't so sure.
"It's interesting we have never hosted another Olympic Games" since the Salt Lake scandal, he said. "I wonder if the hostility and heavy-handed use of prosecution has made the IOC reluctant."
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