WASHINGTON -- After the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Mitt Romney met with a few Republican politicians in the nation's capital, where he distributed replica Olympic torches to commemorate the event. Some of these gifts made conventional political sense -- both Republican Senators from Utah received one -- but others are curious. One Romney torch recipient, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), hails from the other side of the country and has never been known on Capitol Hill as a particularly avid Olympics enthusiast. More curious still: Young's shifting, highly technical account of the exchange, including his refusal to acknowledge that Romney had presented him with "a gift."
When asked by HuffPost whether Mitt Romney had given him an Olympic torch for his office, Young replied, "Yeah." When asked whether he still had the torch, Young said, "Yep."
Commemorative torches for the 2002 Olympics currently can go for thousands of dollars on eBay. But when HuffPost pointed out that House rules restrict members of Congress from accepting gifts worth more than $50.00, Young changed his story.
"It wasn't a gift," Young said. "It was to have in the possession of the Congress. It wasn't a gift, wasn't a gift to me. I don't even know where it is."
A few questions later, Young changed his story again. "We have whatever it was at the Appropriations Committee."
Romney was a registered lobbyist in Utah during much of his work on the Salt Lake City games, and he helped secure an enormous amount of federal funding for the event. At the time, Young was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, the panel responsible for sending federal money to fund specific projects through earmarks and other distributions.
Young was the head of a committee that provided federal money to Romney and his enterprise. Romney later gifted Young a fancy replica torch. Young's responses to questions about the torch seem to have been made out of a concern for House and Senate rules against accepting gifts. There is no evidence that Young accepted the torch as part of any explicit quid pro quo arrangement with Romney, but the Congressional rules are designed to prevent the appearance of such conflicts of interest. Presenting gifts to the chair of a committee with which one does business is frowned upon in Washington.
It is extremely unlikely that anyone in Congress would ever initiate any kind of formal sanction against Young, much less other recipients like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) or former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), over a torch. When HuffPost asked Hatch, for instance, if he was concerned about any ethical charges, the Senator laughed it off.
"No, I'm not that concerned," Hatch said. "That was my state. It was a very important thing."
When Romney was seeking federal dollars, Hatch was serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, while Bennett was on the Banking Committee, neither of which had a role in allocating money for the Olympics.
Young's claim that Romney did not give the torch to him but to Congress is inconsistent with the answers provided by other torch recipients. Bennett, who has an identical torch, keeps it in the trophy room at his Salt Lake City house.
"Mine is hanging on the wall. It's what my wife calls the trophy room in our Salt Lake City house. It's there next to signed photographs of pictures with the Presidents Bush, Clinton, Obama, Nixon," Bennett told HuffPost. "I didn't particularly want a trophy room, but she said her grandchildren will want to know what I was up to, so it's in there along with the honorary degrees and all that."
During the GOP primary race, Romney criticized former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) for seeking earmarks for his state, despite the fact that Romney himself had sought federal earmarks to improve the Olympics. Romney acknowledged the importance of federal funding for the Olympics in his first book, "Turnaround," saying the games "couldn't have happened" without government cash. All told, the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics hauled in $1.3 billion in federal funds, more than twice the expense of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
The Romney campaign did not return a request for comment.