Mitt Romney's Pork Barrel Olympics: The GOP candidate pried $1.5 billion out of the federal government to bankroll his Olympic turnaround. Millions went to questionable projects that benefited well-connected Utahns.
The Romney campaign will run television ads during the games touting the candidate's experience as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics … What Romney doesn't talk about is how he succeeded in Utah with government help—lots of it—and how millions in assistance that he pried out of the feds ended up bankrolling subsidies, sweetheart deals, and giveaways for land developers and other well-connected Utahns.
"The $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars that Congress is pouring into Utah is 1.5 times the amount spent by lawmakers to support all seven Olympic Games held in the U.S. since 1904—combined," Donald Barlett and James Steele reported for Sports Illustrated in 2001. Those numbers were adjusted for inflation.
In his 2004 book, Turnaround, Romney acknowledges the central role of the federal government in making the Olympics possible. "No matter how well we did cutting costs and raising revenue, we couldn't have Games without the support of the federal government," he wrote.
In 2000, with the opening ceremonies still more than a year away, Sen. John McCain called the Salt Lake price tag "a disgrace," and partnered with Rep. John Dingell to demand a Government Accountability Office investigation into how the games could cost so much. Romney's response was muted. As he explained in a letter to the GAO: "Recognizing that our government spends billions of dollars to maintain wartime capability, it is entirely appropriate to invest several hundred millions to promote peace."
The most damning aspect of the Salt Lake tab wasn't the final amount, but how it was being spent. In their exhaustively researched Sports Illustrated accounting, Barlett and Steele explain how many Olympics projects amounted to little more than slush funds for wealthy donors to the games.
Wealthy Utahns used the games as an excuse to receive exemptions for projects that would otherwise never meet environmental standards, or to receive generous subsidies for improvements of questionable value to the games—but with serious value to future real estate developments. In one example, a wealthy developer received $3 million to build a three-mile stretch of road through his resort. Where'd he get the money? Federal funds that had been deposited in the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund. Per the piece.
The $3 million resort road wasn't unique. Snowbasin, the site of the downhill skiing championships in 2002, was one of the more notorious examples … Earl Holding, a billionaire oil baron, pressured the Forest Service into giving him title to valuable land in Park Valley ... That would allow him to turn what was once protected federal land into a massive, and lucrative, mountain resort.
The government largesse, however, has done little to deter Romney from using the 2002 Olympics as an example of cost-cutting purity. "While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere," Romney told Rick Santorum at a debate in February. Maybe they weren't so different after all.