An Olympian Scandal
How a local TV news story in Salt Lake City led to the disclosure of far-reaching corruption in the way Olympic sites are chosen.
Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
CHRIS VANOCUR IS NO STRANGER to the famous-father syndrome. Throughout his career as a television journalist, people have often remarked, "His father is Sander Vanocur," referring to the former Washington correspondent for ABC and NBC.
For eight years, 39-year-old Chris Vanocur has worked at KTVX-TV, the ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City. Most say he's a good reporter. Some say he's a crusader. He hosts a Sunday morning talk show that he likes to call "politics for dumb guys." In fact, Utah politics is his beat, not the Winter Olympics that will come to Salt Lake City in 2002.
But someone (he won't say who) decided Vanocur was the man to make public one of the damning secrets hidden within the Salt Lake City Olympic kingdom. It's doubtful that someone had any idea what he or she was unleashing when Vanocur obtained a draft copy of a letter written in 1996 on Salt Lake Organizing Committee stationery by one of its top officials.
The letter was addressed to a young woman whose father was an influential member of the International Olympic Committee, which in 1995 chose Salt Lake City as a host city. She'd been receiving money for tuition, rent and expenses from Salt Lake Olympic officials since August 1993.
"Under the current budget structure, it will be difficult to continue the scholarship program with you," wrote David Johnson, second in command at the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, to Sonia Essomba, then a student at American University in Washington, D.C. "The enclosed check for $10,114.99 will have to be our last payment for tuition."
The letter set off the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the Olympics, and it was Chris Vanocur, son of Sander, who brought it to the public's attention. As the scandal mushroomed, officials revealed that Essomba had received $108,350 from Salt Lake's Olympic committee, and that the committee had lavished more than $1 million on 24 of the 114 IOC members to ensure the Utah city won the 2002 Winter Games.
With the airing of that letter, Chris Vanocur not only stepped out from under his father's shadow, he also launched a media frenzy that would turn Salt Lake City inside out and spur journalists around the world to produce a torrent of disclosures about Olympic-related malfeasance in Altanta, Georgia (site of the 1996 Games); Nagano, Japan (1998); and Sydney, Australia (2000).
The volume and scope of details unearthed in the two months after Vanocur's initial story by reporters from around the globe was mind-boggling. Nagano Olympic officials had spent $22,000 on each of 62 IOC members before winning last year's Winter Games. Sydney newspapers allegedly made a secret deal not to report on such spending during the city's successful bid for the 2000 Olympics. Salt Lake Olympic officials gave IOC members free credit cards when they came to town, spent $19,991 to take three IOC couples to the 1995 Super Bowl, loaned one member $30,000 to help a friend and paid for plastic surgery to remove the bags under the eyes of an IOC member--and that's just a taste of the largesse Salt Lake doled out.
The story that launched a thousand stories broke in an unlikely venue. Salt Lake City is a relatively small, insular western city dominated by the Mormon Church. The local media are not nationally known for aggressive news coverage or for challenging the power structure (in fact, the Mormon Church owns a daily newspaper and a television station in Salt Lake City). Although many in the press and in public office say they'd heard about scholarship money and cash payments handed out to win the Games for Salt Lake, none of it came to light until Vanocur's two-and-a-half-minute story aired November 24 on the 10 p.m. news.
"We did a story [after the scandal surfaced] about the culture of this state being susceptible to what happened," says James E. Shelledy, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune since 1991.
"There's too much trust and not enough questioning." And that, he says, includes his newspaper, one of two Salt Lake City dailies. "What questioning we did and what challenging we did of the organizing committee was considered way out of line. But for me to say we don't get caught up in the culture is a little bit naive."
The trusting, protective culture in Utah plays a large part in explaining why no one in the media discovered during the seven years before Vanocur's report how far Salt Lake Olympic officials were willing to go to win the Olympics. Efforts by Salt Lake bid officials began in earnest in 1991 after the city lost the 1998 Winter Olympics to Nagano by only four votes. Bid committee officials, it was revealed in a February report, first documented the "scholarship" fund in January 1992. But the culture of the International Olympic Committee also played a role in what happened. It has long been shrouded in secrecy and comes across as disdainful toward the press and resistant to public scrutiny.
With neither the press nor Olympic officials aggressively assuming a watchdog role, it might be considered surprising that the story broke at all. What made the difference, say many, was the piece of paper offering Essomba her last tuition check. That proved to be the smoking gun that both the media and Olympic officials at the local, national and international levels needed to take a close look.
"Sometimes people don't focus on something until it gets labeled," says former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson.
"Until this got labeled a scandal, no one took an active interest. A lot of people in the community knew about the scholarship fund and knew that scholarships were going to people in oppressed Third World countries," Wilson says. "But until Chris Vanocur was able to get the label `scandal' on this, the media was not very aggressive."
THE INTERNATIONAL Olympic Committee considers itself a private entity and has long taken the position that it has no obligation to share its internal workings with the press or the public. Over the years there have been books, articles and news reports alleging corruption in the Olympic site selection process, but they've been dismissed by the IOC as unimportant rumors.
British author Andrew Jennings has written two books detailing corruption within the Olympic organization. "I'm surprised it's taken so long for these revelations to begin to trickle out," Jennings told National Public Radio. "It's a sad fact of international Olympic life that nearly every bid city is drawn into some kind of inappropriate and sometimes corrupt and amoral behavior in the process of acquiring the rights to stage a Summer or Winter Games."
The German magazine Der Spiegel alleged in 1991 that Atlanta officials had resorted to bribery to win the 1996 Games. Dave Postman, now with the Seattle Times, wrote extensively about Olympic politics and corruption when he was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News 10 years ago. Anchorage tried unsuccessfully to win the Winter Games for 1992 and 1994.
"I started hearing rumors about attempted bribes and worked on the story for a long time," Postman recalls. "I finally did a story on September 13, 1988, about bribery and influence peddling. The story ran a few days before Anchorage lost the bid. But I didn't have a piece of paper that said: `Aha, here's what happened.' "
Postman's story said IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch's top assistant arranged for Anchorage to hire his son as a bid consultant for $120,000 while the son was also working for other bid committees. He also reported that an IOC member had demanded sex from his Swedish hostess when Sweden was seeking the Games in 1986. The woman refused and the IOC member left Sweden, angrily pledging not to support the bid, Wolf Lyberg, the secretary general of the Swedish Olympic Committee, told Postman. "This was not the only case. Many people asked us for favors," Lyberg told the journalist.
Lyberg said at the time that competing cities had brought the charges to the IOC's attention. But no action resulted. And, until the recent flurry, none of the stories had much impact.
"Did I think the IOC had pockets of corruption? Sure," Shelledy says. "There was a whole feeling that the IOC under Samaranch was a culture of elitism, corruption and favoritism. I don't think anybody who watched up close could really come to another conclusion. But being able to document this is really difficult."
LIKE THE IOC, The Salt Lake Organizing Committee bills itself as a private entity. Although it depends on $59 million in Utah sales tax receipts to support the Games and relies on public agencies, it has not been held to the same standards of openness required of state entities. Board meetings were held in public, but executive committee meetings weren't. Access to budget documents was routinely denied, Salt Lake City reporters say.
In April 1998, the board attempted to safeguard its aura of secrecy by amending its bylaws to stipulate that any member providing the press with confidential information could be dismissed.
"The people who have been in charge are longtime business people who have a completely different mind-set about how much information to make available than people in government," says Mike Gorrell, who's been covering the Olympics story full time for the Salt Lake Tribune since June 1995. "You have to steadily work them over to let them know it's not going to hurt them to release information."
Frank Joklik was president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee until he resigned in January. The former head of Kennecott Copper Corp. was not accustomed to being subjected to a badgering, inquiring press. When the fortnightly Salt Lake Observer sat down with Joklik last summer for a lengthy interview about the Olympics, he became angry when the questioning turned to the $1.45 billion budget for the 2002 Games, the paper reported.
"We'd been pushing him about the budget, and he got real testy," says Brooke Adams, the Observer's editor.
It's safe to say covering the SLOC, or the bid committee that preceded it, was not like covering county government. Nor were the SLOC board members, for the most part, used to being treated as public officials. Many are top business leaders in Salt Lake City, most are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and all, according to the SLOC's February ethics report, were only interested in doing what needed to be done to bring the Games to Utah. No one has been accused of personally profiting.
"It's very difficult to describe just how insular Utah can be," says Mike Carter, who was born and raised in the state, wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune for 14 years and covered Utah for the Associated Press for nine years before joining the Seattle Times in December. "What you have are a lot of wealthy white Mormon businessmen who watch out for one another. They run the big businesses and they run the state and are indelibly linked to one another through church ties. They call one another `brother.' There's an inherent trust among one another. It was an incredibly painful process to deal with Tom Welch after he got in trouble with the law for slapping his wife around."
Welch, a Salt Lake City lawyer, businessman and Mormon, is credited with doing everything in his power to make sure Salt Lake City won the 2002 Winter Games after the city's four previous, fruitless bids. He had been considered a hero, a tireless volunteer championing the city's cause from 1989 until it got the nod in a landslide at a June 1995 meeting in Budapest, Hungary. Welch became president of the SLOC, a post he held until he resigned in July 1997 amid charges of spouse abuse.
Welch's difficulties were not just a problem for the powers-that-be in Salt Lake City. They were a problem for the media as well, although it's difficult to separate the city's movers and shakers from the media. The Mormon Church owns the Deseret News, Salt Lake City's afternoon daily, and KSL-TV, its top-rated television station, as well as other media properties outside the city.
Police were called to Welch's house on July 9, 1997, by his 11-year-old son, who dialed 911 in an effort to stop a fight in the garage between Tom Welch, a Mormon bishop, and Alma, his wife of 27 years. According to the police report, Welch was trying to restrain his wife from looking in his car for gifts and letters from a woman he had been seeing. He was charged with misdemeanor domestic-violence battery for bruising his wife and later pleaded no contest.
The Mormon president of the SLOC beating his wife? Quite a story. But how to handle it?
Nothing appeared in the papers for more than a week. Then on July 18, the Salt Lake Tribune broke the story, running a 538-word piece by Gorrell, the paper's Olympics reporter, on page B2. Although the Tribune has a policy of not reporting allegations until someone is formally charged, this met the criteria for making an exception. Welch was a public figure. "We went with it right away," Gorrell says. "There was never any question of whether to run it."
The Deseret News found out about the incident before the Tribune, but delayed running a story. Tribune reporter Brent Israelsen says he was called by a friend at the News, his former employer, and told that paper was on to the story. "I told people at the Tribune, `The Deseret News has a story on Tom Welch, and it's not going to run,' " Israelsen says. "That's one of the things that does occur. If a story is killed at the Deseret News, reporters will call and tip the media off."
The day after the Tribune story ran, the News weighed in on B1 with an 831-word story on Welch's woes by News reporters Jerry Spangler and Lisa Riley Roche, who has covered the Olympic beat full time since 1990. The paper added this note: "The Deseret News knew of the complaint Wednesday but chose not to print the story at that time because charges had not been filed." It did not explain its change of heart; charges still hadn't been filed.
The two newspapers engage in a lively competition for news although they are partners in a joint operating agency, sharing production and business staffs and presses. The Tribune is owned by TCI-Cable, which is being acquired by AT&T.
The morning Tribune (circulation 130,000) has twice as many subscribers as the News (circulation 63,000) but has a smaller staff and fewer resources. The News operates out of a new $30 million building, while the Tribune's newsroom could be a set for "The Front Page" with only slight modifications. Reporters at both papers lack voice mail. The dailies go head to head on most issues and enjoy throwing verbal jabs at one another.
"You don't have to work very hard over there, and you get paid more," says the Tribune's Shelledy. Says Deseret News Editor John Hughes, "People say [the Tribune staffers] were Olympic boosters, and we got criticism before the scandal for calling for Olympic accountability."
Both papers live in the shadow of the Mormon Church, whose temple dominates the skyline of Salt Lake City. Seventy percent of Utahns are members of the Mormon Church, a hierarchical religion that doesn't allow women in its priesthood and whose influence permeates everyday life in Utah. "Mormonism pervades everything," says Tribune reporter Karl Cates, who was with the Salt Lake Observer when he was interviewed. "There's a certain deference given to the church officials by both papers. You won't see a lot of probing reporting about the church, which is the predominant social, cultural and perhaps economic force."
There's no overt censorship, but there's a quiet sense of not wanting to rock the boat, say many who work and live there. At the News in particular, there is talk of self-censorship, but it's often too subtle to document. Hughes, the first non-Mormon editor in the paper's 149-year history, arrived in 1997. He says the church never tells him what he can or can't print, although church officials do read editorials and check cartoons before they go in the paper. "Nobody has ever asked me to run a story or skew a story," says Hughes, who spent most of his career at the Christian Science Monitor.
But neither paper has ever aggressively investigated the Mormon Church, which is the biggest institution in town, occupying three huge city blocks and operating a budget estimated to be in the billions. The church is also leery about outside scrutiny. In 1991, it was not a Salt Lake City daily but an out-of-state paper, the Arizona Republic, which published a series exposing the church's finances. To its credit, the Salt Lake Tribune reprinted the articles.
In some ways, covering the IOC poses many of the same problems as covering the Mormon Church. "You have to understand something about Utah culture," says Ted Pease, who is head of the Communications Department at Utah State University. "This is very much an old boys' state. Part of it has to do with the power and presence and preeminence of the LDS [Latter-day Saints] church. Most of, if not all, the business people in the state are connected in this way. There are no smoke-filled rooms in Utah, but it's the same concept. There's very much a sort of `you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' The press tends to be locked out of that because they are not of those circles. There's the additional culture of protectiveness in the state which makes it a difficult place to cover anything that has to do with the dominant culture, regardless of whether it's the Olympics or the LDS church."
IT WAS IN THIS ENVIRONMENT that the Tribune's Gorrell and the News' Roche covered the biggest event to come to Utah. "What happened here was a routine kind of reporting," says Howard Berkes, a National Public Radio senior correspondent based in Salt Lake City. " `This is what the Olympic Committee said today' kind of reporting. Just the press releases. And conveying that this is how excited Utahns are about the Games. Every step along the way, reporters were running to one of the prominent vocal critics in the city for a sense of balance. But there wasn't a lot of digging to find if Olympic Committee claims were true. I would say there wasn't a lot of skepticism."
Tribune Editor Shelledy, unlike his counterpart Hughes, echoes that view with brutal candor. "It's a good question why we didn't break the story," he says. "Before the scandal, we were just doing coverage. We didn't break anything big. We documented the coming and goings of IOC delegates and the gifts. We didn't document the money because we didn't know about it. We complained bitterly about not having access to budget figures."
But even when the local media did break good stories about fairly blatant conflicts of interest involving members of the local Olympic committee, reaction was muted. One conflict-of-interest story involved SLOC trustee Earl Holding, a Mormon multimillionaire who owns Sinclair Oil, the Little America hotel chain and a modest ski resort that Olympic officials wanted to develop into the downhill race course for the Winter Games. Congress approved a land swap in 1996 in which Holding traded 4,115 acres in other parts of Utah for 1,320 prime U.S. Forest Service acres near his resort--a deal he'd been trying to make for 10 years. Holding remained a trustee but abstained from voting on matters involving his ski resort, such as when the board approved a $13.8 million contract between Holding and the SLOC. The conflicts were reported by the Tribune, the News, the Ogden Standard-Examiner and television stations.
"You report it, and nothing happens because they all trust one another," says Carter, who covered the Olympic preparations for the AP. "It's probably not different from anywhere else, except there's an added level of trust because of the Mormonism." (Holding and three others with perceived conflicts resigned in the wake of the February ethics report.)
There was some other noteworthy reporting before Vanocur detonated his bombshell last November. In 1997, after Holding's land swap was approved, Gorrell reported that the U.S. Forest Service's point person for the deal was going to work for Holding. In January 1998, Roche reported that Tom Welch, whom the SLOC was paying $10,000 a month for consulting after he resigned, was doing nothing for the money.
"Lisa and Mike have been duly skeptical even as the newspaper and managers were leaning toward boosterism," Carter says. "A lot of us just didn't ask the right questions. I'm not going to fault Mike or Lisa. They've been pit bulls on this story since it broke. But they didn't break it."
NO, VANOCUR DID. He "obtained" (his word) the tuition letter on November 23 and immediately got on the Internet and started searching. He had no idea who Sonia Essomba was or what he was dealing with. He typed in the name Essomba and got some hits. There was an Essomba who was a doctor in Africa. He read on. ###
"Somewhere along the line, it mentioned in a bio that he was an IOC member," says Vanocur. "I'd heard stories about scholarships, and I began thinking that Sonia is probably a relative of an IOC member." So he called the local Olympics committee and arranged an on-camera interview for the next day. He asked about the letter, and Frank Zang, the SLOC spokesman, confirmed Sonia was the daughter and the local committee did pay part of her tuition. Bingo.
By 5 p.m., Vanocur was back at KTVX, preparing a story for the 10 o'clock newscast.
Throughout the evening, the station ran teasers with Vanocur holding up the letter, saying, "This is a letter Olympic folks probably didn't want us to get."
Vanocur's report was the lead story. "In other words," he said, "our Olympic Committee was paying thousands of dollars to a close relative of somebody who voted on whether or not Salt Lake should get the Olympics." Zang told Vanocur the scholarship program "was going to help Third World countries and to provide people with education opportunities." Humanitarian aid to the daughter of a heart surgeon in Cameroon who just happened to be a voting IOC member?
"When I saw Chris' story that night," recalls Gorrell, "I was like: `Wow, this is a different realm.' Why is this so much bigger than anything before? Because there's paperwork."
The News picked up Vanocur's story the following day, November 25, and the Tribune went with it on the 26th, Thanksgiving. Both played it on the local front. Another development took place December 8, when the SLOC's president released information indicating 13 individuals had received nearly $400,000 in financial aid or scholarships over a seven-year period from the committee. Six of the beneficiaries were relatives of IOC members.
But the big breakthrough came during a 2 a.m. phone call to Switzerland on December 9. NPR's Howard Berkes, who had covered two Olympics, telephoned IOC member Marc Hodler at his office in Bern. "What wasn't clear was whether this was somehow a scholarship-for-votes deal," says Berkes, an 18-year NPR veteran. "I wanted to see if someone from the IOC thought it was a problem, and I knew that Hodler had written the IOC rules governing gift giving." (A 1994 IOC rule limits gifts or payments to IOC members before a bid vote to $150.)
Hodler wouldn't speak on tape, but he told Berkes that Salt Lake's support of IOC relatives violated the rules. "They are not allowed to pay for that," Hodler told Berkes. "Salt Lake City paid because they lost twice and wanted to win."
Berkes tipped off the AP about his Hodler interview, and it picked up his story. Carter had been writing about the burgeoning scandal but, he says, his stories weren't getting on the national wire. "In my mind, it was obvious this thing was going to be big as time went on," Carter says. "But I was being told repeatedly by the people in New York that this was small potatoes. It was a local story.... It wasn't until Howard got in touch with Hodler that it became a big damn deal."
He adds, "Once you start running 600 or 700 words out on the national sports wire and then the national wire, it takes on a life of its own. Then the New York Times parachuted in its people and the story got even bigger."
Timing was key. Berkes' story aired December 10. The IOC was scheduled to meet in Lausanne the following day. The press descended in full force, and Hodler was pumped up. He said he had been waiting for this kind of evidence; now he was demanding an investigation.
"In my mind, the story would have dead-ended with KTVX's letter had not Marc Hodler lost bladder control in front of the entire news media in Lausanne," says Tribune Editor Shelledy. "How far this single scholarship controversy would have gone with just that, I don't know."
Ultimately, a saga that began with a single-spaced, 95-word letter ballooned into hundreds of thousands of printed words, acres of footage and four separate investigations. Within Salt Lake's Olympic committee, four board members have resigned, the president and vice president are gone and other administrative officials are on leave. Six IOC members are out and as many as 20 more face expulsion. Sponsors are reconsidering their financial commitments to the Winter Games because of the scandal. Investigations are being opened at past Olympic venues for possible bribery and misuse of money. Salt Lake quickly hired a new Olympics president, and sweeping reforms are under way.
"To me there's a little bit of drama with the story," Vanocur says. "How a somewhat small-town reporter gets ahold of this letter that ignites a scandal. A guy who does modest good work over the years. It's kind of nice for me to semi-step out of my father's shadow. He's kidding me now about being known as Chris Vanocur's father."