Romney's Shady Salt Lake Connections

The two Simmons sisters, Julia Watkins and Elizabeth Hoke, gave a combined $17,300, when their families are included. Both said in Daily Beast interviews that they recalled next to nothing about Kim's hiring. Watkins insisted that her brother didn't "do anything knowingly wrong" or "illegal," and Hoke called the federal prosecution "a witch hunt." Actually, the Bush administration appealed the initial 2001 dismissal of the Welch case, trying it while Watkins's son Peter worked in the White House and Matthew Simmons was the president's top energy adviser.

The Simmons family wealth is so tied to the church that each of its Utah businesses was initially purchased from a Mormon-owned, for-profit entity. Zions Bank was created by Brigham Young in 1873 and sold to Roy Simmons in 1960; SFI acquired its first radio station from church-owned Bonneville in 1977, and Keystone bought the satellite business from Bonneville in 1986. David Simmons called this "coincidental."

The church remains one of Zions' largest customers, with Zions even handling the electronic transfers to missionaries at 285 missions. When Roy Simmons died in 2006, the four top Mormon lay leaders — including the church president and prophet Gordon Hinckley, whose son worked at the bank, as well as Hinckley's two first counselors and the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — attended the funeral.

David Simmons told us that he only got involved in the Kim scams "as a good community citizen." He said at his sentencing hearing that he initially "felt honored to be asked" to help with the Olympic bid and claimed that he was told, "Salt Lake needs you to do this." As insistent as he was in Daily Beast interviews that his family companies didn't benefit from the Games, an August 2000 public offering for SFI, which was renamed Simmons Media Group (SMG), flatly said: "We believe that Salt Lake City is an attractive radio station market because it will host the Winter Olympic Games of 2002." In fact, SMG went on a buying spree before the Olympics, expanding greatly its Utah radio holdings.

Simmons conceded that SMG also acquired Utah's largest travel agency in 2000 that was, according to news accounts, looking to "take advantage of expected new skiing business sparked by Salt Lake winning the 2002 Winter Olympics." SMG also bought a billboard company whose signs, according to the SEC filing, "are within direct line of sight of Interstate 15," the main highway connecting the Olympic venues. Simmons ridiculed any notion that these pre-Olympic actions were inspired by what he called "the three-week benefit" of the games, but every pre- and post-economic analysis of the games found that they produced a long-term bonanza for Utah tourism and economic development (PDF).

A year after Salt Lake won the bid in 1995, David Simmons sold the Keystone satellite business to France Telecom (FT) at a price celebrated in local business stories. Simmons acknowledges that "the only company that really had any ability of providing direct services" for the Salt Lake Games "would have been Keystone," which was headquartered there. Not only was FT interested in the Salt Lake Games, its new Globecast subsidiary, formed after the Keystone acquisition, actually won the 2002 Olympic business, positioning itself to become the premier satellite-services company for international sports events.

A top Keystone executive who asked not to be identified said that Simmons, who was so involved with Salt Lake's bid effort he trekked to the 1991 IOC selection meeting in Birmingham, England, "stepped up" to do the Kim hiring in part because the Olympics would benefit Keystone, making the acquisition more attractive to France Telecom, which had purchased a minority interest in 1993. Simmons said he didn't think "there was a direct relationship" between the Salt Lake Games and the purchase "in FT's mind," but "I think they thought it would be interesting."

As for Zions, The American Banker did a 1997 story headlined "Utah Banks See Golden Opportunity in 2002 Olympics" and quoted Harris as saying that "everybody realizes the impact will be enormous" and will establish the Salt Lake area "as a destination resort."

David Simmons explains his family's generosity to Romney — several times its puny donations to Bush ($17,249) and Jon Huntsman ($7,500) — by pointing to Romney's efforts to "save" the Olympics: "After that terrible event in which I'll forever wish I was not involved, I was incredibly grateful for what he did."

What's also clear, though, is that a family whose businesses targeted and benefited from the Olympics, including one Simmons who committed a crime to get the Games to Salt Lake and a family company that facilitated that crime, has lined up since at the Romney campaign kitty. The family's salutes to Romney, David's in particular, also show how little Romney rocked the Salt Lake boat, still a hero to the man that embodies the scandal.

The Dizdarevic and Simmons donations to Romney over the years add up to $1.5 million, all of it connected directly or indirectly to contributors at the heart of a scandal that the noted IOC investigator Dick Pound said in his memoir "could have meant the end" of the international committee. It was a giant worldwide barrage of horrific headlines that continued for years. Yet, it simultaneously was Romney's claim to fame, his ticket to the governor's mansion in Massachusetts. Now, it has taken on a distant, blurry cast, as if all that matters is that he ran good Games. But if presidential campaigns are character tests, Romney's starts in Salt Lake.

Tags: 2002 winter olympics, daily beast, david simmons, john kim, mitt romney, sead dizdarevic, turnaround memoir, wayne barrett

    • Wayne Barrett
    • Wayne Barrett was a fixture at the Village Voice for almost four decades, doing his first investigative feature in 1973 and writing more than 2000 stories between then and 2011, when he left the paper. He has also written five books, including two on Rudy Giuliani, a biography of Donald Trump and City for S...

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