U.S. Appeals Olympics Bribery Case

With little more than two weeks before the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies, the U.S. government asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to reinstate 15 fraud and racketeering charges against two central figures in an Olympic vote-buying scandal.

Justice Department lawyers filed a brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver asking it to overturn a district court ruling that dismissed the charges against Tom Welch, former president of the Salt Lake City Olympic bid committee and Dave Johnson, the former vice president.

"The United States has an interest in demonstrating that it will not tolerate corruption in the competition for the selection of host cities for the Olympic Games," Justice Department lawyer Richard Friedman said in a 57-page brief to the appeals court.

Welch and Johnson were the highest ranking officials charged with buying votes to win the games for Utah -- a scandal that tarnished Salt Lake City's successful bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The appeal comes 16 days before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games, which run from Feb. 8 to 24.

But it will not likely play out during the games. Lawyers for Welch and Johnson have 30 days to make their filing, so the case would not be taken up before the Olympics end. No date has been set for oral arguments, a court clerk said.

In July 2001 U.S. District Court Judge David Sam dismissed four key counts against Welch and Johnson -- those charging the men with using interstate travel to help in racketeering and bribery -- and vacated their trial date.

Sam ruled that Utah's rarely invoked commercial bribery law doesn't clearly apply to Olympic bidding. The state law prohibits classic business kickback schemes.

After the July move, the two men still faced one count of conspiracy to carry out the scheme and 10 counts of defrauding the Salt Lake Organizing Committee by wiring money to persuade International Olympic Committee dignitaries to chose Utah for the Games.

In November Sam dismissed the final 11 charges against Welch and Johnson, saying that once the four bribery charges were dropped the other charges held no legal weight.

The federal appeal said the district court "erred" in dismissing the charges.

CBS Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen says the decision to appeal looks more like a political than a legal one since it won't affect the upcoming games and isn't likely to succeed unless the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals takes a dramatically different view of the law than the trial judge did; and that's a long-shot.

He says federal attorneys must feel that they have more to gain by at least trying the appeal than they have to lose by just dropping the matter.

A July 2000 indictment alleged the two men made $1 million in illicit payments to influence members of the International Olympic Committee to select Utah for the 2002 Winter Games.

Welch and Johnson have maintained their innocence, saying other officials working to ge the games for Salt Lake City knew they had pulled out all the stops to get the Games.

They had said they were just following long-standing procedures in the bidding war.

Prosecutors, however, argued that anyone would know that paying $1 million in bribes is conduct most likely to be judged illegal. They noted that some of the money was wired directly to IOC members' bank accounts.

The government also argued that a fraud case can stand on its own without racketeering charges. The fraud case accuses Welch and Johnson of hiding or disguising their IOC dealings from a board of trustees.

Defense lawyers consider the fraud charges the weakest part of the federal case and are eager to confront Utah's political and business leaders on the stand with evidence they say shows the trustees knew enough about Welch and Johnson's dealings.

The Utah scandal was the largest in Olympic history. Since news of the scandal broke, reforms have been implemented in how cities are chosen, with much of the early work being done by experts instead of Olympic delegates.

When Olympic leaders began the final year of preparations for the 2002 Games, their biggest fear was that talk of the sleaze and scandal would dominate the event.

But since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the scandal has taken a back seat to security concerns with Olympic officials working to persuade athletes and the public that an already tough security plan had been strengthened and that all would be safe.

Welch was president of the Salt Lake bid and organizing committees until 1997, when he was forced out amid charges of domestic violence. He continued to serve as a $10,000-a-month consultant until the Olympic scandal blossomed in January 1999, when Johnson was removed as vice president. Both men also lost post-games pensions.

© MMII, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report