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Romney’s Olympic earmarks under fire

Critics say Romney held big mitt out to federal government during games.



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Washington • Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has hammered rival Rick Santorum on his support for federal pork as a senator, but Romney, too, is guilty of nabbing Washington cash, especially while heading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

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OWatch the video created by Democrats to criticize Romney on the earmarks issue: http://bit.ly/Awg4dE

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Romney sought congressional directed funds — known as earmarks — to help build transportation systems and augment security operations for the Games and argued that such money was vital to putting on the events.

"No matter how well we did cutting costs and raising revenue, we couldn’t have Games without the support of the federal government," Romney wrote in his first book, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games.

The federal government pumped more than $340 million into Utah in advance of the 2002 Games, funding about 18 percent of the cost, including funds for buses, light-rail construction and a host of security-related projects, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. If costs for rebuilding Interstate 15 and all of the light-rail expenses are added, the federal sum zooms to $1.3 billion.

Romney is back in Salt Lake City this weekend to help celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Olympics and for a campaign fundraising event Friday night at the Little America Hotel. Meanwhile, his rivals and Democrats are seizing on the Games’ federal largesse to charge that the former Massachusetts governor is hypocritical when he says he wants to ban earmarks — and that his criticism of Santorum’s earmark requests ring hollow.

"Does the forefather of Obamacare, advocate of the Wall Street Bailouts, and proponent of job-killing climate change regulations really want to try and lecture anyone about earmarks?" Santorum Communications Director Hogan Gidley said.

"It’s just confusing as to why Governor Romney would attack Rick Santorum for doing his constitutionally obligated job on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania, just as Governor Romney once did for the people of Massachusetts and as a private citizen while running the Olympics."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and 2008 GOP presidential nominee is now a Romney presidential supporter. But at the time of the 2002 Games, he was the chief critic of the Olympic earmarks, railing against the funding that was being funneled through by then-Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

"What 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 on the Senate floor on Sept. 19, 2000.


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"I do not understand how we Republicans call ourselves conservatives and then treat the taxpayers’ dollars in this fashion. This is terribly objectionable."

The Democratic National Committee highlighted Romney’s work in obtaining federal funds for the Games in a new web video it released on Friday, (http://bit.ly/Awg4dE) noting the $1.3 billion figure and that Romney planned the "most expensive games in U.S. history."

"The real savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics?" the video intones. "The American taxpayer."

Melanie Roussell, the DNC’s press secretary, says Romney is spinning tall tales when he claims to have saved the Games, noting that without the federal infusion, they would have run big deficits.

"In addition to exaggerating his impact on the Games, Mitt Romney also fails to acknowledge the $1.3 billion federal bailout — the largest for any Olympics then — that he secured and bragged about at the time, while railing against similar federal spending on the campaign trail today," Roussell said Friday.

Romney says in his book that staterequests for federal transportation earmarks were scaled down from $4 billion to $400 million by the time he took over as head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and notes that he refused to sign a letter claiming that the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX light-rail construction was an "essential" part of the Olympics.

Romney himself defended receiving federal help for the Games in a 2001 letter to the GAO where he noted that while the costs for the Salt Lake Olympics were six times that of the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the taxpayers’ portion had decreased to 18 percent from 52 percent for the previous Games.

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul says the majority of the federal funds used for the Games were for security. Coming only months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, heightened security was absolutely necessary.

Saul also notes that Romney’s ability to secure new corporate sponsorships helped bring down the taxpayers’ tab.

Beyond that, Saul says earmarks were created by Congress and abuses by people like Santorum are the reasons why Washington has a spending problem.

"Senator Santorum is like a shop-aholic who wants to blame department stores for his spending obsession," Saul says. "Governor Romney supports a permanent ban on earmarks, while Rick Santorum defends business as usual on Capitol Hill."

tburr@sltrib.com



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