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Salt Lake City Olympics earmarks a double-edged sword for Romney

Douglas C. Pizac / AP

Mitt Romney is shown in October 2001, when he was president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. On Saturday evening, Romney spoke at a celebration honoring the 10-year anniversary of the games.

Mitt Romney oversaw a wide-ranging lobbying campaign to snare tens of millions of dollars in federal earmarks for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games at a time critics were charging the games had become a prime example of out-of-control “pork barrel” spending, according to Senate lobbying records.

Romney’s role in overseeing the 2002 Olympics, long seen as a major political asset, is providing new fodder for political adversaries. The Democratic National Committee released an attack video Friday assailing him for running “the most expensive games in U.S. history.” 

GOP rival Rick Santorum also accused Romney Saturday of "hypocrisy" for raising the issue of earmarks given his record at the Olympics. The Romney campaign responded that Santorum was "shooting himself in the foot" over the issue. 

In recent weeks, Romney has portrayed himself as an uncompromising fiscal conservative and criticized Santorum for being a “strong defender” of federal earmarks. “Look, I’m in favor of a ban on earmarks,” Romney said during a recent interview on Sean Hannity’s television show. “I think spending in Washington is out of control.”

But Senate lobbying records show that the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee under Romney spent $3.5 million employing five lobbying firms in addition to its own in-house lobbying shop. Among their goals: winning federal earmarks that included $60 million for "perimeter" security; $15.8 million for  "international sporting competitions"; $3 million for an extension of a Salt Lake City light rail project; as well as millions more for communications equipment, sewer projects and other programs aimed at supporting the Olympics.

The overall federal cost of the 2002 Olympics has been estimated at about $1.5 billion, although Romney defenders say much of this was put in place before he took over the Olympics Committee in 1999. But Romney later touted his efforts in his book about the Winter Olympics, “Turnaround,” writing that he directed his chief Washington lobbyist “to bring in more federal funding than had ever been appropriated for any Olympics, summer or winter.”

And he made his success in doing so a selling point when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. “I was successful in organizing the Olympics, got record funds from the federal government," he said then. 

Santorum seized on Romney’s aggressive pursuit of the federal earmarks at a campaign appearance Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.

"He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake Games -- in an earmark, in an earmark for the Salt Lake Olympic Games," he said. “Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?”

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, responded: “Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post 9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Mitt Romney wants to ban earmarks. Senator Santorum wants more ‘Bridges to Nowhere’” — referring to a proposed bridge in Alaska that was canceled after it became a symbol of pork barrel spending.

Saul also said that “the  majority of federal funds for the Salt Lake Games was for security purposes," and noted they took place "just months after  months after 9/11," when "security was heightened.”  She added:  “Taxpayer support of the games was only 18 percent, enabled by Mitt Romney's ability to secure new corporate sponsorships to bring the taxpayer tab down."

Romney’s stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics is getting fresh scrutiny this weekend amid conflicting claims about his record. Romney flew back to Salt Lake City Friday for a campaign fundraiser -- co-hosted by his former chief Olympics deputy and attracting many leaders of the city’s business community. He also was participating Saturday evening in a gala civic celebration commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Games.

His campaign — and financial supporters — see Romney’s Olympics stewardship as a prime example of his leadership and management skills under fire. And they are hoping to make more of it: A media firm hired by Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, also is in Salt Lake City this weekend to film footage about Romney and the Olympics for use in upcoming television ads.

Then the head of Bain Capital, Romney was recruited in 1999 to become president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, or SLOC, which ran the games, after it was engulfed in a bribery scandal that resulted in the loss of sponsors and a huge projected deficit.

“Mitt described it as stepping into an empty elevator shaft,” said Fraser Bullock, a former Bain Capital colleague who served as Romney’s No. 2 at the Salt Lake Olympics committee. “We were in deep trouble financially, operationally, morale-wise. It was about as difficult as you can imagine.” (Bullock co-hosted the Romney campaign fundraiser in Salt Lake City and has contributed $100,000 to the Romney Super PAC.)

Romney, Bullock says, engineered an “extraordinary turnaround” of the Olympics -- restoring confidence, tapping his business connections to bring in new corporate sponsors and slashing costs. In one of his more memorable moves, he put an end to the committee’s habit of catering lavish boardroom lunches, replacing them with Dominos’s pizzas.

 “He bought a pizza for $5, cut it into eight slices, charged $1 dollar a slice,” said Bullock. “So we could make $8 for a pizza that cost $5 and have a profit of $3. That sent a great message throughout the entire organization that we would watch every penny.” 

In the end, Romney is credited by supporters like Bullock with turning a projected $479 million deficit into a $100 million profit. But detractors charge he also used the games for self-promotion, even sanctioning official Olympic pins bearing his image with such captions as "We Love You, Mitt."

In turning around the 2002 games, Romney got a big helping hand from U.S. taxpayers. The federal government poured $1.5 billion into the Salt Lake games – more than twice the amount spent on any previous U.S. Olympics.

 Republican Sen. John McCain called it a “fleecing” of the U.S. Treasury.

Santorum accuses Romney of hypocrisy on earmarks

 “The Olympic Games supposedly hosted and funded by Salt Lake City, which began in corruption and bribery, has now turned into is an incredible pork-barrel project for Salt Lake City and its environs.” McCain said in a Sept. 19, 2000, speech on the Senate floor. 

Although Romney spokeswoman Saul asserted that a majority of federal funding for the Olympics was for security, McCain, in leveling his charges, relied on a General Accounting Office report that documented a litany of direct and indirect federal earmarks for the Salt Lake Olympics that had little if anything to do with security. Among them: $645 million for new highways and roads, including a repaved mountain road  to the Snow Basin ski resort, owned by a wealthy local oilman. There was also hundreds of millions more for light rail, parking lots, bus rentals, sewer construction, housing for the news media and weather forecasting — in addition to $161 million for security (a figure that climbed even higher after 9/11.)

 “I do not understand how we Republicans call ourselves conservatives and then treat the taxpayer dollars in this fashion,” McCain said in his 2000 speech. “This has to stop.”

Bullock, Romney’s chief deputy at the Olympics, disputed suggestions that there was any “federal bailout” of the Olympics and noted that most of the funding that critics objected to was planned “years before Mitt got there.” Former GOP Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah served on the Senate Appropriations Committee and is credited with inserting many of the Olympics earmarks.

But, as president of the Salt Lakes Organizing Committee, Romney fully embraced – and aggressively defended – the earmarks. In an Aug. 18, 2000, letter to the GAO, Romney called the Olympics “a massive undertaking” and added: “Recognizing that our government spends billions of dollars to maintain wartime capability, it is entirely appropriate to invest several hundred million dollars to promote peace.”