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Return Of Torchgate: Rep. Bill Young Contradicted By Committee Staff On Torch Whereabouts

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Mitt Romney, then-president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, displays the medals for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics on Oct. 15, 2001 in Salt Lake City, Utah. A commemorative torch from the games is at the center of a potentially compromising ethical situation involving Florida Rep. Bill Young. (George Frey/AFP/Getty Images)
Mitt Romney, then-president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, displays the medals for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics on Oct. 15, 2001 in Salt Lake City, Utah. A commemorative torch from the games is at the center of a potentially compromising ethical situation involving Florida Rep. Bill Young. (George Frey/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- With less than one month remaining before the 2012 elections, one of the strangest ethics imbroglios of the year remains unresolved: Torchgate.

After the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Mitt Romney traveled to Washington and presented several key Republican politicians with commemorative Olympic torches. One recipient was Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who was then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the federal government's most powerful spending panels.

Commemorative torches for the 2002 games can currently go for thousands of dollars, and official House ethics rules restrict members of Congress from accepting gifts worth more than $50.00.

It is extremely unlikely that the House would file any formal ethics charge against Young over a silly torch from 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the congressman offered a bizarre, shifting explanation for the torch episode when interviewed by HuffPost in August.

Young initially confirmed that Romney had given him a torch for his office, and told HuffPost that he still, in fact, had the torch. After HuffPost brought up the ethics rules restricting gifts to $50.00, Young pivoted.

"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."

When pressed by HuffPost in August, Ryan Nickel, a current spokesman for the Democratic side of the Appropriations Committee, said he had not seen the torch in official committee storage space.

"I worked in the majority and have been through both majority and minority storage space and never came across an Olympic torch," Nickel told HuffPost in August.

It also caught the attention of the Florida Democratic Party.

"We're gonna find this torch," Florida Democratic Party spokesman David Bergstein told HuffPost in August.

Over two months later, the torch remains at large.

"Young's illicit torch is still out there somewhere ... mocking me," Florida Democratic Party spokesman David Bergstein emailed to HuffPost on Thursday.

What's more, the Republican side of the House Appropriations Committee contradicted Young, confirming that the committee does not in fact have the torch in its possession.

"We don't have it," Republican appropriations committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing told HuffPost on Thursday.

[Have you seen Young's torch? Email us at Offthebus@huffingtonpost.com]

Young's torch-related difficulties have not been shared by fellow torch recipients, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and former Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), both of whom openly acknowledged to HuffPost that they still have their torches. Senate ethics rules also cap gifts at $50.00. Bennett told HuffPost that his torch is currently hanging in a trophy room in Salt Lake City. Hatch literally laughed off the suggestion that he might need to be concerned about possible ethics charges.

"No, I'm not that concerned," Hatch said.

Hatch and Bennett were Utah Senators, however, while Young represents a Florida district and served on a committee that directed federal money to the Salt Lake City Olympics, which were run by Romney.

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.

It is not clear what effect the whereabouts of the torch could have on Young's election prospects. At the moment, he remains a favorite to win in November, although he faces his most serious challenger in decades in Jessica Ehrlich. Young has been criticized in the Tampa press for refusing to debate Ehrlich, and recently reversed his staunch support for the war in Afghanistan, a move that some progressives viewed as an acknowledgement that Ehrlich is a more competitive candidate than Young has faced in years.

Ehrlich is out with a new TV ad that dings Young as an out-of-touch Washington denizen, noting that the octogenarian has been in Congress since the Nixon presidency. In the ad, Ehrlich herself speaks to the camera, criticizing Young's votes in favor of the budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would end Medicare as it's currently structured in favor of a voucher program. Medicare is a particularly hot-button issue in Florida, with its large population of retirees.

The Romney campaign declined to comment for this article, and Young's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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