Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Getting Lucky?

By Christopher Smart

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  Now that knowledge of the ever-expanding Olympic scandal has spread to the four corners of the globe, does it matter that the original report by KTVX Channel 4 reporter Chris Vanocur could have been based on a "fabricated" letter?

It does, for several reasons--but none that could possibly suck the bribery genie back in the tarnished Olympic purity bottle.

The first reason is clear: If it were a fabrication, then Vanocur was duped. It would suggest that Channel 4 did not thoroughly check out the letter, but instead stumbled into the biggest scandal to hit Utah since the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Second, it could point to a whistle blower inside SLOC, who, like Deep Throat, desperately wanted to air out corruption without disclosing his identity; or it could be a disgruntled member of the board or staff who wanted to embarrass Salt Lake Olympic officials or the movement as a whole.

No reasonable person now disputes that corruption existed in the giving of some $780,000 in gifts and cash to IOC members in exchange for votes for Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games bid. But according to wire service reports and a recent story in The Salt Lake Tribune, the letter from former SLOC Vice President Dave Johnson to the daughter of an African IOC member, notifying her of SLOC's last tuition payment of more than $10,000, was a "fake."

That the document was leaked to Vanocur one week before a scheduled IOC meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, has done nothing to quell rumors that the leaker had an agenda. Nor has the fact that SLOC can find no evidence that the letter ever existed.

An internal investigation by SLOC officials has turned up nothing on the letter, said Shelley Thomas, SLOC's senior vice president for communications. Beyond that, there was never a check written that would correspond to the letter, Thomas explained. Finally, although Johnson's name is affixed to the document Vanocur received, his signature is absent.

SLOC officials are quick to note that although they believe the letter is a fabrication, the underlying issues are not. When the story broke in November, former SLOC President Frank Joklik attempted to spin the revelations of payments to IOC officials as "humanitarian aid." Times have changed, and now Thomas explains that whether or not the letter was a fake is not important, because payments were made.

"The letter wasn't valid. It wasn't sent. But the issue is valid, so it is a moot point," Thomas said in a City Weekly interview.

It may be a moot point now, but the underlying allegation that the letter was fabricated means that, for whatever reason, someone on the inside used Channel 4 and Vanocur as unwitting tools.

Those words are not taken kindly by Tom Sides, KTVX news director. He argues that the letter obtained by Vanocur was a "draft" document that, although never sent, was not fabricated. Further, Sides explained, the letter wasn't serendipitously slipped to Vanocur, but was the product of long months of investigative reporting.

"We always reported that it was a draft of a letter," the news director explained of the station's coverage. "If I didn't feel comfortable with our sources on this, I wouldn't have gone forward."

The draft document obtained by Vanocur has a hand-written note by a SLOC official scribbled in its margins, Sides said, noting that the scrawl added to the veracity of its authenticity.

"The notion that we somehow got lucky is a weak attempt to discredit the reporter on the story," Sides said.

Neither Sides nor Vanocur will say how Channel 4 came by the letter, but the idea that someone inside SLOC set out to torpedo the operation by handing off the letter--whether or not it was fabricated--still appears quite plausible. The question is, who provided the information to Vanocur?

"A lot of journalists had been hearing about what the governor has called the dark corner of corruption in the IOC," Vanocur said in an interview. "I did get sort of lucky," he said. "But I believe in what Branch Rickey, the old Brooklyn Dodgers' owner, once said: Luck is the residue of design."

Vanocur wouldn't hint, even generally, how he came by the draft letter. "I suspect I will take the secret of who gave me the letter to my grave."

At SLOC, of course, some people would give their eyeteeth to know who slipped Vanocur the letter--real or fabricated. But no one at SLOC can say definitively that the document didn't exist in draft form. Thomas admits that the letter could have existed as a draft that was later scrapped, only to be picked out of the wastebasket by someone inside.

"Whether it ever existed in a draft form, I'll never know. We haven't spent any time investigating that," Thomas said.

And although the Tribune story states as fact that "the document that ignited the Olympic bribery scandal is a fake," Editor James E. Shelledy, too, backed away from the notion that it couldn't have existed in draft form.

"It was a fact, they were going to shut down the tuition deal," Shelledy said in an interview. "While the information was correct, the letter was a jury-rigged document. That's what SLOC said."

Pressed on whether the Tribune had knowledge that the letter was a complete fabrication rather than a draft, Shelledy said the paper's report was based solely on comments from SLOC officials. "We report what was said."

In other words, no one knows, save a few people somewhere who aren't talking, and Chris Vanocur, who staked his reputation on its authenticity and hit the mother lode.

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