Originally created 01/19/99

Critics pressing Utah leaders on Olympic debt issue



SALT LAKE CITY -- Critics of the 2002 Olympics threatened Monday to launch a petition drive unless the governor and legislature act to protect taxpayers from the Winter Games' "financial folly."

If that means the Utah capital must follow Denver's lead from 1976 and give the Olympics back, so be it, the group Utahns for Responsible Public Spending said.

"There is not some sense of civic shame hovering over Denver," said Stephen Pace, the longtime Olympic opponent leading the group.

Municipal underwriting of the games is turning out to be Salt Lake's biggest vulnerability in the wake of the Olympics worst corruption scandal.

Salt Lake City, by contract with the International Olympic Committee, is obligated to pay any debts left behind by the games.

Utah's governor in 1991 signed a contract saying the state would stand behind Salt Lake in meeting any shortfall, and current Gov. Mike Leavitt says the state has a moral obligation. Yet he acknowledges Utah's Constitution prohibits the state from guaranteeing a city's debt.

And the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's ability to raise the remaining $250 million it needs from corporate sponsors is in jeopardy following revelations that Olympic bidders gave IOC members lavish gifts, cash, scholarships and medical care as they sought the 2002 Games.

The scandal has brought down two of Salt Lake's top organizers and a U.S. Olympic Committee official, and threatens 13 IOC members with expulsion or sanction.

On Monday, two of the IOC's most prominent figures denied any wrongdoing as their names were linked to the scandal.

South Korea's Kim Un-Yong, a powerful member of the IOC executive board, and former vice president Vitaly Smirnov of Russia confirmed they were among the IOC delegates under investigation in the bribery case.

City council members asked state Attorney General Jan Graham last week whether the eight-year-old state-city agreement would hold up in court.

And on Monday, Utahns for Responsible Public Spending pressed for a public discussion of who pays if the games fail, choosing the Capitol Rotunda on the opening day of the Utah Legislature's 45-day session.

"We've gotta figure out who's going to pay and quit pointing fingers at each other," Pace said. "The governor says the state has a moral obligation. Do voters believe they do?"

The group filed a proposed initiative petition with the lieutenant governor's office.

If the Legislature doesn't force the IOC to share in the financial risks or call a public vote on state guarantees of public debt this spring, the group will begin circulating the petition with the hope of putting it on the 2000 general election ballot.

The group would need around 125,000 signatures, and hopes the lieutenant governor will allow it to collect signatures via the Internet and E-mail.

Four years ago, Utahns for Responsible Public Spending failed to get enough signatures on an almost identical initiative petition.

Pace is hoping the scandal will give the effort new steam. "The shock is just beginning to set in for the people," he said.

The petition is phrased to say that Utah would not guarantee or reimburse the debt or obligations of any organization hosting the Olympic Winter Games.

If voters approved it, Salt Lake City alone would be on the hook.

Pace believes Utah residents would vote to stop the Olympics, although that's not something his group can legally propose via an initiative drive.

"If the chance of dumping the games were put to the people this spring, I think they'd do it," he said.

Denver voters decided in 1972 to give back the 1976 Winter Games, fearing environmental damage and mammoth public debt. It's the only time a city has given the games back for any reason other than war.

SLOC Chairman Robert Garff has said he remains confident organizers can raise all the money they need to meet the $1.4 billion budget. They already have commitments for 75 percent.

But if there is a shortfall in revenue, the games will be scaled back, Garff has said.

In Lausanne, Switzerland, on Monday, IOC director of marketing Michael Payne said sponsors he met with in the United States last week continue to support the games and none has pulled out. But they are pressing for a thorough investigation, Payne said.

"The concern from a few of the sponsors is that the IOC gets to the bottom of the matter and roots out any form of impropriety or unethical activity," he said. "The IOC is committed to doing that."