Originally created 05/18/99

Olympic whistle-blower returns to scene of bribes



SALT LAKE CITY -- The man who blew the whistle on Olympic bribery is back at the scene of the scandal, and happy to be there.

Marc Hodler, the senior member of the International Olympic Committee, returned to Salt Lake City for meetings of the coordination commission he heads for the 2002 Winter Games, an event the Swiss lawyer helped forever link with corruption.

Last December, Hodler was the first Olympic official to say the million-dollar program of scholarships, travel, medical care and cash run by Salt Lake bidders was purely and simply a scheme to buy IOC members' votes.

He also said the corruption culture went far beyond the Utah capital.

Now, with the worst of the trouble seemingly past and reform in the works, Hodler hopes his return -- the first visit by the IOC since the scandal broke -- helps heal the wounds and push along preparations for the games, which start in 998 days.

"We are trying to give confidence to the people of Utah that these games will be perfect, and also to the sponsors," Hodler said Monday.

The IOC, Hodler said, was ready to discuss ways to help the Salt Lake Organizing Committee meet a $300 million budget gap aggravated by the scandal. He said money problems would be a focus of the four-day session that concludes Thursday.

"We fully support Salt Lake City," he said. "And we fully support the initiatives it has taken for the Winter Games of 2002."

The scandal, the worst in Olympic history, led to the purge of 10 IOC members, plans for drastic change in the Olympic community and at least six investigations, including still-open inquiries by the Justice Department and the Utah attorney general's office.

Hodler said he was pleased with progress the IOC has made in dealing with the scandal and repeated that Salt Lake had been a victim of unscrupulous committee members and agents promising blocks of votes.

He also confirmed previous reports that Dave Johnson, then the No. 2 official of SLOC and a bid leader, telephoned him last Nov. 19 or 20 to tell him "some important documents" regarding a scholarship program had been stolen from the committee and turned over to the news media.

Days later, KTVX-TV broke the news that Johnson sent a letter to the daughter of the late IOC member Rene Essomba of Cameroon, ending a $10,000-a-year scholarship. That was the first documented proof of abuse of power within the IOC and the first element in the scandal.

"We had heard rumors for a long time, but we never really had facts," said Hodler, a Swiss lawyer who helped write the IOC's old ethics code.

It was unclear whether Johnson, a longtime friend, told Hodler IOC members were involved. Hodler said he was told there were no direct cash payments. He said he advised Johnson to "come completely clean" and was "disappointed" when it was later revealed Johnson lied to him.

Phone messages left for Max Wheeler, Johnson's lawyer, were not immediately returned.

While the bombshells that struck almost daily last winter have subsided, Hodler's commission still saw firsthand evidence of the scandal's impact on Salt Lake.

Led by Jean-Claude Killy, the Olympic ski champion and now IOC member from France, the panel's financial task force was briefed by SLOC officials on their problems raising money from jittery sponsors.

Killy met with three experts who are reviewing SLOC's books: IOC financial director Thierry Sprunger; Bjorn Brenna, head of finance for the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer; and Pat Glisson, Atlanta's financial chief for the 1996 Summer Games.

Even with three new deals worth $30 million signed last Friday, SLOC still has budget cuts of $84 million under consideration.

Some of those are aimed at the edge of the games, such as no free food for Olympic volunteers. Others could affect the athletes, keeping Olympic venues closed to training until just before the flame is lighted.

And the IOC could feel the knife, too. SLOC president Mitt Romney has suggested deferring the international committee's share of income so SLOC does not have to dip into credit lines. Romney has asked to negotiate independent sponsorships with information-technology companies.

IOC members could be asked to give up some perks, such as chauffeured cars, and stage the games with less pageantry. Already, it appears, the Olympic leaders are toning down their presence.

The coordination commission, including sports and national Olympic committee officials, as well as the IOC delegation, is staying at a comfortable but nondescript hotel, hard by a McDonald's.

It's also down the street from the IOC's usual hotel, the Little America, which is run by Earl Holding, owner of Sinclair oil and the Snowbasin ski area where the Olympic downhill is scheduled. Holding resigned last winter from the SLOC board amid concern over conflict of interest.

It was not immediately clear why the change in hotels was made.