Public information on Olympics process scarce
UPDATE: Chicago did not win its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The International Olympic Committee chose Rio de Janeiro as the Olympic host city on Friday morning. This story was posted to Fanning the Flames before the vote was taken. Check out a photo gallery of reaction at Daley Plaza and more photos from the Tuesday night protest on the Freedom Museum's Flickr page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/freedomphotos/.
Posted on Oct. 1, 2009
By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter
While supporters of a 2016 Olympics in Chicago are on a media blitz before Friday’s International Olympic Committee vote, they will likely be more camera-shy with planning information if the city wins the bid.
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) won’t apply to the city’s organizing committee if Chicago gets the Olympics, but an ordinance passed by the city council provides a few safeguards to open public records.
The organizing committee has agreed to provide the city council’s Budget and Government Operations, and Finance committees with quarterly financial reports. The reports will include information such as revenues, expenses, construction costs, financial forecasts, insurance, and copies of financial reports submitted to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and state. Information such as requests for proposals, final construction contracts and amounts, and information on whether contractors donated anything to the organizing committee would also be disclosed. These reports will be posted on a quarterly basis to their Web site. A copy of the conflict of interest policy and required forms from the board of directors and other senior officers will be also posted on the organizing committee’s Web site.
No Games Chicago spokesperson, Tom Tresser, said he doesn’t have much faith in the ordinance’s openness commitment. No Games Chicago is a grassroots group of local residents who oppose the city’s Olympic bid, and also has a presence in Copenhagen this week. Tresser, a local activist co-founder of Protect Our Parks which sued the city to prevent it from privatizing portions of Lincoln Park, said their Freedom of Information Act requests were regularly ignored by the city.
“The city flouts the (FOIA) law routinely,” he said.
If Chicago is chosen, Tresser said he doubts that local media organizations will fight for open records because he feels they didn’t do a good job covering the bid process. He said many of the media organizations also have a conflict of interest because they donated money to support the Olympic bid. According to the Chicago 2016 Stewardship report, Tribune owner Sam Zell, the Sun-Times, ABC 7, WGN, WTTW, Chicago magazine and other media organizations donated or provided pro bono support.
Tresser said information that is available, such as a report by the non-partisan Civic Federation on the impact of the Olympics, is filled with conflict of interest issues. Companies and organizations that funded the report have either donated to the bid or stand to gain financially from a local Olympics, he said.
Pushing the local organizing committee or the International Olympic Committee to follow state FOIA laws is futile, Tresser said, because the committee will likely ignore it.
“The IOC is above all law. You can’t make the IOC and its creatures obey American law,” he said.
The press office for the Chicago 2016 bid committee did not respond to questions from Fanning the Flames for this story.
Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Museum, which is part of the McCormick Foundation. The McCormick Foundation donated money to the 2016 Fund for Chicago Neighborhoods, which awards grants to local organizations for local planning and development activities to complement the city’s Olympic bid. A specialized reporting institute in partnership with DePaul University was sponsored by the McCormick Foundation to help the media cover the Olympics if Chicago wins the bid. The foundation was also one of the contributors to the Civic Federation of Chicago study, which was released in late August. The non-partisan organization conducted an independent financial review of Chicago’s bid for the Chicago City Council.
Lack of transparency
Organizing committees in previous host cities have claimed to be private entities, exempting them from state freedom of information and open meetings laws. It’s a barrier that local media organizations had to overcome in Atlanta, Georgia and in Salt Lake City, Utah to cover Olympic development news, and later to uncover questionable practices their cities used to become host cities.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing editor, Bert Roughton, who was a reporter for the newspaper during the 1996 Atlanta games, said most of the records they needed were available during the bidding process, because much of that process involved approval from local and state government.
But after Atlanta won the host city bid, he said the organizing committee began claiming its private status and tried to keep records closed. Roughton said he remembers several weeks of back and forth discussions with Olympic organizers trying to get them to be more open with information. When the newspaper asked for salary figures, organizers took it as “aggressive act.” Roughton said many committee members were not public figures and unaccustomed to dealing with the press, so it took them a while to come around and understand what reporters were trying to do.
Roughton said the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority (MAOGA) was created as a public entity, which meant its records were subject to the state’s freedom of information law. One of MAOGA’s tasks was building Olympic venues, he said, so documents such as construction contracts were public information. The London 2012 Olympic Committee has set up a similar public entity called the Olympic Delivery Authority.
The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), eventually released some records to avoid going to court, Roughton said, and agreed to make regular reports to the media on their work. He said the newspaper’s experience turned out OK overall and they were able to gain access to the top salaries of those involved with the games, budgets and other important information for the public.
At the time, Roughton said the IOC probably wasn’t accustomed to dealing with journalists armed with legal protection under FOIA laws looking for information. Roughton speculated that the IOC probably doesn’t have to deal with the same level of scrutiny as they do in the U.S., because other countries have less press freedoms.
“They (IOC) were fairly uncomfortable working here,” Roughton said.
That discomfort would only grow later when a scandal in the bidding process for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games was discovered.
Scandal in Salt Lake City
A letter from Salt Lake City Organizing Committee (SLOC) official David Johnson stating that money from the “scholarship program” would be ending for Sonia Essomba surfaced in the media in November of 1998. Essomba, a student at American University at the time, was the daughter of an International Olympic Committee member which voted to award the games to Salt Lake City in 1995. As the story unfolded, it was discovered that Essomba had received $108,350 in college tuition, rent and expenses from the SLOC. It was part of more than $1 million in improper gifts and cash presented to 24 of 114 IOC members, in an effort to secure Salt Lake City as the Olympic host city.
The American Journalism Review reported that the story triggered an investigation into the “biggest corruption scandal in the history of the Olympics” and led to investigations into the bidding practices of previous Olympic game host cities.
After the scandal broke, state legislators in Utah demanded that SLOC open their meetings and records to the public, according to archives from The Salt Lake Tribune. The Salt Lake Tribune regularly reported on the open records issues the newspaper, along with other media organizations and the public faced during the lead up to the Olympics.
By the end of March 1999 the SLOC agreed to voluntarily release documents and work on drafting an open records policy. Salt Lake City media organizations felt that the initial open records policy draft didn’t go far enough and still denied access to many meetings and records. Mike O’Brien, attorney for the Salt Lake Tribune, sent a letter to the SLOC policy committee asking them to close loopholes in the policy. O’Brien and other media attorneys argued that because Salt Lake City signed an agreement to cover the SLOC’s debts and borrowed $59 million in state funds to build Olympic venues, the organization should be open to more public scrutiny.
After four months of discussions, SLOC adopted an open records policy agreeing to some demands from the media and withholding other information. The committee agreed to a “presumption of openness” for audit, compensation and ethics committee meetings. But the public can be shut out of those meetings at any time because of personnel issues, contracts or other business that may arise, and are eligible to go behind closed doors under Utah’s open meeting laws.
The committee adopted clear language to limit the reasons for closing meetings on legal matters. Non-business and social meetings of board members would not require public notice, but any SLOC business at these events was prohibited. The SLOC created a reading room for the public with information including a list of contracts, summaries of business terms in television rights contracts, and a list of donors who contributed more than $10,000.
The SLOC limited its $1.45 billion budget to a four-page summary because of concerns it would hurt the committee’s ability to negotiate with potential suppliers. The salary figures for SLOC officers and the five highest paid employees were released, but not for lower level managers and employees. SLOC agreed to a 20 day time frame to respond to requests for information.
Months later, the SLOC hired a paralegal to help them respond to information requests from the media and agreed to release some documents which were not covered in the open records policy. Then in May 2000, the SLOC refused to release documents with scandal-related legal payments, and a list of favors that may motivate IOC members to vote for Salt Lake City, which was known as the geld document. Some committee members feared releasing the documents would interfere with the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the bribery scandal.
After the Justice Department informed the committee that it was not the target of their investigation, SLOC president Mitt Romney agreed to open all bid-era documents with some exceptions. Romney allowed documents which may contain information related to the indictment of former SLOC officials Tom Welch and Dave Johnson to be closed, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. IOC members threatened to sue the Salt Lake committee for libel for releasing the geld document. Romney responded that the open records policy mandated its release. The media would try to get the document from other sources, he said, and if the SLOC refused requests it would be viewed as a cover up.
The Salt Lake City scandal sparked interest at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to look back at records from the 1996 Atlanta bid committee. The newspaper along with the Georgia state attorney general’s office fought to have records released. U.S. Congress opened up an investigation into potential corruption and also called for Atlanta Olympic organizers to make records available.
In the summer of 1999, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games released an index of 6,500 boxes of documents and processed records requests, according to the Associated Press. Roughton said the public wanted more information over time and that the Atlanta bid documents were regarded as “historical documents” by the time they were released.
In an eight-part series published by Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the newspaper found hundreds of gifts, job offers and personal favors involved in the bidding process.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that after the SLOC scandal, Nagano, Japan -- which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics--burned its documents related to the bidding process. In a 1999 article that appeared in the Japanese newspaper, Asahi, vice secretary general for the Nagano bid committee, Sumikazu Yamaguchi, confirmed that the committee’s accounting books were destroyed in 1992. A 1999 investigation into the Sydney, Australia committee’s bid for the 2000 summer Olympics uncovered travel, entertainment and gifts that exceeded IOC rules. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that independent auditor, Tom Sheridan, noted in his investigation report that many bid-related documents had gone missing or were destroyed.
Did sunshine equal reform?
The International Olympic Committee has an ethics commission that investigates alleged ethics violations by its members. In the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal many IOC members resigned from the organizations, who were either connected to that bid or other bids that were investigated by individual countries.
In 2002, U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) chief executive Lloyd Ward was accused of trying to help a power company get a contract to supply generators to the Dominican Republic for the 2003 Pan America Games. The power company had ties to Ward’s brother. No contracts were signed and the USOC’s ethics oversight committee decided not to discipline Ward.
The U.S. Senate’s committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held hearings in January 2003 to investigate the controversy and other internal problems at the USOC. The hearings led to a massive restructuring of the organization, which included shrinking its board of directors from 125 to 11 people and clearly defining responsibilities for directors and staff.
In addition to having an ethics officer, the USOC also created an Office of Compliance to make sure all branches of the organization follow its code of conduct. The USOC strengthened the code’s sections on conflict of interest and spelled out the rules on gift giving. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and its application to the USOC, was added to code. The act makes it a crime to directly or indirectly offer a bribe to foreign officials or foreign government-owned corporations.
SIDEBAR: British activists face records barriers for London 2012 Olympics
As Chicago vies for the 2016 Olympics, the 2012 Summer Olympics host city, London, is preparing for its games and has a Freedom of Information policy in place. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) has the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) as its public entity. ODA was created by the Parliament and will handle infrastructure such as building Olympic venues and transportation.
The LOCOG claims private status, but the ODA is subject to England’s Freedom of Information Act 2000 law. The London 2012 Web site provides information on how to file a request with the ODA and what categories of information are public.
The basic intent of England’s law is similar to FOIA laws in the U.S., except that it includes a long list of vague exemptions. England’s law also allows public officials to base a decision on whether the requestor is abusing their right to request information, harassing or causing distress to officials, or whether the request lacks a serious purpose.
Despite the ODA’s policy, members of Games Monitor, a London Olympics watchdog group, say they’ve been denied information requests on repeated occasions.
“Whenever I ask a FOI of the ODA(Olympic Delivery Authority) and it is a matter covered by LOCOG the ODA simply tell me LOCOG is not obliged to answer,” said Julian Cheyne, a member of Games Monitor, a London Olympics watchdog group.
Cheyne, an East London resident who was displaced to make way for the Olympics,
said he and other activists have been accused of making “vexatious requests.” Under England’s Freedom of Information law, public officials can deny vexatious, or repeated requests if they’re similar to prior requests. Cheyne said they have to be specific and word their requests carefully otherwise officials will provide vague answers or claim they can’t answer because of costs or time.
Independent journalist and Games Monitor member, Mike Wells, who has been writing about radioactive waste that was unearthed at the London Olympic park site, said he has had trouble obtaining records. In a Sept. 4 letter, ODA general counsel Celia Carlisle points out factors that they “advise” Wells consider when he makes future requests and warns that they may deny information if it “constitutes an abuse of the right to request information or is otherwise manifestly unreasonable.” Carlisle notes that in filling freedom of information requests, the ODA can take into account the history of a request, its context to previous requests and consider “whether the request is likely to cause unjustified distress, disruption or irritation.”
Games Monitor member and activist Charlie Charman said it generally takes government officials 20 business days to respond, which is the maximum amount of time allowed under the law. Officials then have a list of exemptions they can claim to refuse information such as commercial confidentiality and “manifestly unreasonable” requests. He said officials can also demand payment for the time it takes to process a request. If they deny your request, Charman said an appeal can take another 20 days or longer.
Some of the London Olympics’ key documents have been shrouded in secrecy. Charman said the Arup Cost and Benefits Report of 2002, which was used during the bidding process, wasn’t released until 2008 and was heavily redacted. The host city contract hasn’t been released under the freedom of information act, Charman said, because of the “duty of confidentiality” claims to the IOC.