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Romney Didn't Build That: His Olympics Were Bailed Out By Taxpayers

Mitt Romney holds the Olympic torch during a news conference in Salt Lake City in 2001. (Douglas C. Pizac/AP)

Mitt Romney holds the Olympic torch during a news conference in Salt Lake City in 2001. (Douglas C. Pizac/AP)

Mitt Romney brags often that his success rescuing the Olympics in Salt Lake City is proof that he will turn the economy around for the country. A review of his role reveals that the man opposed to an auto industry bailout got a fat federal bailout for the Games he ran.

Failure Not Likely

While running Bain Capital, Romney was summoned to Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon church, to manage the 2002 Olympic Games mired in scandal involving bribes, stealing and greed. Huffington Post did an extensive review of what Romney did when he took over the games in 2002.

Here’s what the they found:

Of the half-dozen Olympic officials interviewed for this article, none said that the games would have been a failure if not for Romney’s intervention. David Wallechinsky, a commentator for NBC’s Olympic coverage and the author of several Olympic reference books, said that Romney played an important role in budget and PR matters. But beyond that, “his involvement is greatly exaggerated.”

“A lot of people could have stepped in and made it work,” he told The Huffington Post. “Not to say he did anything wrong. He did what he had to do. What he did was fine. The way he portrays it, however, is absurd … The Olympic movement had survived two world wars, a terrorist attack, and boycotts. It could have survived a bribery scandal.”

Tithing In Reverse

Almost as soon as he arrived in Utah, Romney said he wanted an additional $8 million in loaned property and cash from the Mormon Church. The church’s involvement was already controversial.

The Mormon Games

Among those who were unhappy was Utah’s wealthiest businessman, Jon Huntsman Sr., father of the unsuccessful GOP candidate for president.

Huntsman Sr., a well-known church leader, criticized Romney for exploiting his ties to the church. He declared: “These are not the Mormon Games.” After claiming to have scoured the world for the best person, Huntsman said, “Mitt brings in one of his cronies” from Bain to be the number two person in charge of the games, adding him to a leadership team of Mormons that included Romney and the chairman of the games.

Romney Gets A Taxpayer Bail Out

Romney realized the church’s largesse and the games sponsors couldn’t cover costs. So where did the private sector champion go for help? To the federal government, of course. He even became a registered lobbyist.

Romney, who opposed the auto bailout, went to Washington seeking a big taxpayers’ check to bail out the games. When he got wind of it, Sen. John McCain denounced the “staggering sums” that Romney wanted the federal government to spend on the games. This was years before McCain and Romney would tangle in the 2008 presidential primaries. “The American taxpayer is being shaken down to the tune of nearly a billion and a half dollars,” McCain told the Los Angeles Times. McCain vowed to stall or kill “this pork-barrel spending.”

This battle between Romney and McCain raged for two years. McCain said of Romney: “Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”

You Didn’t Build This

Inevitably taxpayers picked up a big tab for the Salt Lake games. While taking credit for “turning around” the Olympics, Romney got President George W. Bush to turn around and tuck $2.7 billion into his budget to cover the games’ deficit.

No Budget Oversight

A former Salt Lake City council member, Sydney Fonnesbeck, had served on several Olympic organizing committees, including one with budget oversight. She told Huffington Post that the [Olympics Committee] became less transparent under Romney. “He closed ranks,” she said. “I certainly didn’t see a budget after Mitt came in.”

Can’t Afford A Flop

Worried that failed games might sidetrack his plans to run for governor, Romney confided to David D’Alessandro, president of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, that he feared that he wouldn’t “be anything anymore in public life” if the games flopped. According to the Boston Globe, John Hancock, which had threatened to leave the games as a sponsor over the bribery scandal, was eventually persuaded to stay involved.

An Olympic-Sized Blowup

In The New Republic, Alex Magillis reported that at the Olympics one day:

Romney found himself stuck in a huge traffic backup [and] … jumped out to take charge. He started directing traffic, over the objections of a sheriff’s deputy, Kodi Taggart; she later filed a report on Romney’s interference. And he lit into an 18-year-old volunteering as a security officer, Shaun Knopp. Knopp told reporters that Romney had asked “who the f—” he was and “what the f—” he was doing and had then told him, “We got the Olympics going on, and we don’t need this s— going on.” Romney denied this at the time, saying he had not used such language since high school. “I would not, have not, and never would use the f-word,” he said.

Yeah, and he can’t remember pinning down a prep school classmate and leading a group of bullies in cutting the hair of a boy who later came out as gay.

Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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