Utah newspapers, broadcasters demand openness from Olympic committee

Thursday, May 20, 1999

Citing a recent bidding scandal and a $59 million loan from the state Legislature, Utah news organizations banded together recently to demand that the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee conduct most of its business in the open.

Although the Olympic committee is a private entity, three Utah newspapers and four television stations say state law requires the committee to open meetings and records because it is spending taxpayer dollars.

“Our position is that what they do will have a great effect on the state of Utah and the city of Salt Lake, probably more than what most government agencies do,” said Richard Hall, assistant managing editor for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. “Certainly there is taxpayer interest, so our belief is that they ought to operate as much like a government entity as they can.”

The request comes in the wake of a bidding scandal surrounding Salt Lake City's efforts to land the 2002 Winter Olympics. Some say committee organizers' efforts to woo members of the International Olympics Committee amount to bribery.

Hall said: “I think you could reasonably argue that this would not have happened had the SLOC been more open originally.”

Committee spokeswoman Caroline Shaw referred questions to drafts of proposed open-access policies on the committee Web site. An ad hoc policy committee taking comments on the policies had planned to approve them on May 14, but Shaw said it delayed a decision to hear from the news media.

The proposed open-meetings policy would require the committee to conduct public meetings except when it discussed the good name and character of an individual, considered certain contracts or security issues or when it was conducting an investigation regarding allegations of misconduct.

Hall says news organizations agree that some proprietary interests, such as sponsorship contracts, should remain closed.

“But I think there ought to be the presumption that a record is open if available,” Hall said. “If there is a good reason to make it otherwise, then the committee should explain why.”

Last week, the Society of Professional Journalists contributed $1,000 to the openness effort, noting that a taxpayer loan enabled Salt Lake City to build a sports park complete with bobsled and luge runs, ski-jump ramps and state-of-the-art ice rinks. The committee will receive millions of federal dollars for security purposes.

The committee has said it will use revenues it earns from the Olympic Games to pay back the loan plus an additional $40 million.

“We believe this is an important issue, because there was $59 million in public tax dollars used to build facilities and to attract the Games,” said Bruce Cadwallader, legal defense chair for SPJ. “The Utah Legislature has also passed legislation requiring these meetings to be open. So it's very much a public issue.”

Cadwallader noted that news groups led by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month won a battle to open the records of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The Journal-Constitution said the public had a right to know if the records contained evidence of a bribery scheme similar to that in Salt Lake.

The Georgia Amateur Athletics Foundation, a private group holding the records, contended that the documents did not fall under Georgia's Open Records Act. But on April 30, the foundation began offering records for public inspection.

“This fight shouldn't have to be fought every year,” Cadwallader said.

“The reason that it's worth making an effort in Salt Lake is that it is assumed that America is going to have a bid city or host city relatively frequently,” Hall said. “If we can set a precedent now, it will help the Baltimores or Washingtons or whoever in bidding for future.”