WASHINGTON -- Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell promised Monday an investigation of alleged bribes by Salt Lake City officials to help win the 2002 Winter Olympic Games would be "thorough and prompt."
"One of the most difficult parts is the judging of past actions by current standards," Mitchell said. "How do you treat people fairly? We will do the best we can within the limits of time and scope."
After his first meeting with members of a special commission investigating the allegations, Mitchell told reporters the five-member panel must file its report to the U.S. Olympic Committee by Feb. 28. He said there would be no public reports before then.
"I entered this process with a completely open mind both as to the practices and standards which have been utilized in the past and those which ought to be utilized," he said. "We owe to them (the athletes) the obligation to make certain that the games in which they participate are in fact and are perceived as totally fair and above reproach."
The accusations of bribery have rocked the Olympic movement. Mitchell, who brokered a Northern Ireland peace accord and has advised the president informally in the impeachment process, said the investigation would focus on the circumstances surrounding the selection of Salt Lake City by the International Olympic Committee.
USOC president Bill Hybl said the organization set new guidelines limiting gifts and gratuities to $25 in November 1997 and emphasized the investigation will look for ways to prevent the kinds of abuses alleged against Salt Lake City.
Past and present officials of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee have acknowledged that they gave members of the international committee gifts and paid college tuition to some of the committee's relatives prior to the city being selected for the Winter Games.
USOC officials said tougher guidelines and oversight will be in place for the site selection for the 2007 Pan Am Games and the 2012 Summer Olympics.
"It is clear that while Salt Lake is the catalyst for this scrutiny, the issue goes deeper and broader and much further into history than these games," said Shelley Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City Olympic committee. "We are the only organizing committee offering up the records of its former bid committee. No other city has come forward with evidence to refute or confirm the claims that these are long-enduring practices."
The commission will not have subpoena power, but Mitchell said he has been assured of cooperation from Salt Lake City officials. Any evidence of criminal wrongdoing will be passed along to the Justice Department for its investigation, he said.
"Our investigation would in fact be conducted separate and apart, but we would welcome any information they would send our way," said Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin.
The International Olympic Committee expects to complete its own investigation by Jan. 23. IOC officials have previously said they prefer to punish IOC members who improperly accepted gifts and not Salt Lake City.
The IOC is in danger of losing a special tax concession worth about $1.4 million a year from the Swiss government because of the scandal, a Swiss paper reported. The exemption from the Swiss value-added tax was granted to the IOC by the Swiss government in September, which now is reconsidering it.
The Salt Lake organizers' ethics board also is investigating and plans to report its findings by Feb. 11.
Any delays likely would irritate sponsors who pay an increasing percentage of the multimillion-dollar sports budget and have told Olympic officials they want the controversy handled swiftly. Olympic officials have been contacting sponsors to assure them that action is being taken to maintain the Olympics image of high ideals and ethics.