Campaign Contributors Go for Gold

The new three-and-a-half mile road connecting Utah Highway 167 to Snowbasin Ski Resort, site of the 2002 Olympics' downhill and Super-G skiing events, looks ordinary enough.

The two-lane road clings to the side of snow-drenched foothills, rolling like ocean waves in every direction, while serrated peaks loom in the distance. This used to be the domain of intrepid backcountry skiers; now tens of thousands of fans, lucky enough to afford at least $45 apiece for tickets to these iconic Olympic skiing events, are being shuttled up and down the road. But few of the American fans in the Gore-Tex-clad, cowbell-ringing crowds probably know the following facts:

- Taxpayers paid $15 million to build this new access road that Snowbasin's billionaire owner, Earl Holding, had once pledged to pay for himself;

- The road had been exempted from basic environmental reviews;

- Holding had secured 1,320 acres of the land near the resort for real estate development in a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service;

- Utah's congressional delegation, recipients of Holding's campaign contributions, ensured that all this came to pass with special riders tucked neatly into massive spending bills and other complex legislation, where nobody would pay much attention;

- Holding and the politicians who championed his concerns wrapped their advocacy nicely in the Olympic flag, arguing that the land swap and road were necessary for the Games' success -- even though most of the building on the land he acquired is years away from completion.

In addition to Snowbasin, Holding's private empire includes Sinclair Oil, Little America (a hotel chain) and Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho. He, his family and executives for his companies have been generous to Utah's state politicians and congressional delegation. They gave $30,000 in 1993 to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch for the legal defense fund he set up to defend himself in the BCCI banking scandal. Two years later, Hatch introduced legislation for the land swap. Utah governor Mike Leavitt received $20,000, and a trip on Holding's jet to Budapest in 1995 to announce the selection of Salt Lake City as the site of the Olympic Games.

While Holding may be the poster child for how to turn the Olympic games to personal gain, he is hardly the only campaign contributor to benefit. After Salt Lake City won the contract for the Winter Olympics, the Utah congressional delegation lobbied Washington hard for massive amounts of public funding to help pay for roads, buses, parking lots, sewers, tree planting, and so on -- much of the costs for putting on the games. They were hugely successful. The price tag for taxpayers for the 2002 Olympics is some $1.5 billion, according to a special report in Sports Illustrated by award-winning investigative reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. That's one-and-a-half-times more than the amount spent by the government on all seven Olympics games in the U.S. since 1904, combined, even after adjusting for inflation. And private beneficiaries reap much of the benefit from increased tourism and Olympic contracts.

Other private beneficiaries with ample political connections include Ian Cumming, chairman of Leucadia National Corp., whose family owns Park City Mountain Resort, where snowboarders are throwing their gold-medal winning McTwists. Leucadia National Corp is the leading contributor to Utah's congressional delegation, giving more than $1 million in hard money since 1997.

Then there's John Price, chairman and chief executive of JP Realty Inc., who serves on an Olympic Committee. In a 1998 letter to shareholders, Price pointed out that "We are positioned to ... benefit from the growth expected as Utah hosts the Winter Olympics in 2002." The shopping mall magnate's company is the source of $543,000 in hard money for the Utah delegation since 1997. (Price is a big-time political player nationally. He was President George W. Bush's Utah finance chairman, and he and his wife alone contributed a total of $468,000 in the 2000 elections, all of it to Republicans. Just last week, Price was sworn in as ambassador to Mauritius, an African island nation.)

Only a small group of the most talented athletes qualify to compete in the Winter Olympics every four years. Of that group, just a small fraction wins gold, silver, or bronze, and an even smaller number gain enough recognition from that achievement to convert into anything like a remunerative career. Meanwhile, the public pays $1.5 billion for the games.

Mitt Romney, SLOC president, defends this public payout by saying "These are America's Games." But it's the campaign contributors who win the gold.

OUCH! is a weekly bulletin from the Public Campaign, a non-partisan, non-profit organization devoted to comprehensive campaign finance reform.