Olympics bribery inquiry launched

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The Independent Online
LEADERS OF the International Olympic Committee, moving to tackle an escalating corruption scandal, questioned Salt Lake City officials yesterday in the first investigation into alleged vote-buying by an Olympic city.

The committee set up a panel, which summoned organisers of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games to answer the allegations. The chief investigator refused to rule out the possibility of taking the games away from Salt Lake City, though it is considered unlikely. Frank Joklik, president of the Salt Lake Organising Committee (SLOC) and the senior vice- president, Dave Johnson, appeared before the panel for 90 minutes. Both sides declined to comment, saying the inquiry was still in process.

Earlier, Mr Joklik met the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and other officials to provide information and documents.

The controversy centres on the payment of $400,000 (pounds 250,000) in scholarships to relatives of IOC members by the Salt Lake bid committee, which won the right to stage the 2002 Winter Games.

An IOC executive board member, Marc Hodler, said the scholarship fund, described as "humanitarian aid" by Salt Lake officials, amounted to a bribe to sway votes in the 1995 election. It is the most serious case of alleged ethical misconduct investigated by the IOC since the former US member Robert Helmick was accused of conflict of interest in 1991. He resigned as an IOC member and as president of the US Olympic Committee.

This is the first time the IOC has investigated possible bribery by bidding cities, despite allegations of corruption in other Olympic votes.

"The executive board takes this matter very seriously," said Dick Pound, the IOC vice- president heading the inquiry. "Despite many requests made in the past or evidence to support rumours that have been floating around, we have never had anything come forward. Specific allegations have now been made. The executive board acted very quickly to investigate."

The panel would investigate allegations that "there may or may not have been payments for the benefit of members of the IOC or their families connected with the Salt Lake City bid". Mr Pound, a Canadian lawyer, said there was no deadline for completion of the investigation but it was possible the inquiry could be wrapped up this weekend. He declined to speculate on what sanctions could be taken against Salt Lake but did not rule out moving the games elsewhere.

John Krimsky, deputy secretary-general of the US Olympic Committee, discounted any possibility of the games being moved. "There is no chance at all, absolutely none in my mind."

Salt Lake organisers have denied the bid committee's $400,000 project was to buy IOC members' support. Rules prohibit bidding cities from giving IOC members or their relatives any presents or benefits worth more than $150. "I've already stated I do not regard what was done as a bribe," Mr Joklik said yesterday. "I recognise there have been perceptions contrary to that. I regret those perceptions, but I don't feel they are justified."

Among those identified as receiving scholarship funds was Sonia Essomba, daughter of the late Rene Essomba of Cameroon. Mr Essomba, a prominent surgeon, was the secretary-general of the National Olympic Committees of Africa.(AP)

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