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USOC chief says ex-Bush spokesman not tied to Chicago bid

June 1, 2009 |  4:55 pm

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On Memorial Day, an e-mail hit the BlackBerry with a link to a Sports Business Journal scoop about the U.S. Olympic Committee having hired Ari Fleischer as a communications consultant.

Given that the news break came on a holiday, I waited a day for the USOC to make a formal announcement of the Fleischer situation.

When none arrived by last Wednesday, my reporter’s skepticism kicked in, and I immediately began to wonder if the USOC was using its new corporate mindset and trying to keep Fleischer’s role quiet. After all, Fleischer does come with Olympic movement baggage -- links to a presidential administration whose policies drew wide dismay, disdain and outright disgust around the world.

Fleischer not only spent some 2 1/2 years -- January 2001 to July 2003 -- as George W. Bush’s press secretary, but he later was implicated in the investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame by Scooter Libby, chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

On the surface, that would make Fleischer potentially radioactive to a Chicago 2016 Olympic bid relying on both President Barack Obama’s support and his global image as the anti-Bush to help win over the International Olympic Committee on Chicago’s behalf. (The USOC badly needs another Olympics in the United States to assure its financial well-being beyond 2012.)

The Fleischer hiring made me wonder if the USOC soon would be announcing Cheney as the board of directors replacement for Stephanie Streeter, who resigned that board position after becoming interim USOC chief executive in March. (That's a joke. I think.)

So I e-mailed Streeter to ask if she would answer some questions about Fleischer, and she took time out late last week from moving her family from Wisconsin to Colorado Springs to respond. (It would be nice to have the Great Oz, USOC Chairman Larry Probst, weigh in about such matters, but he doesn't often emerge from behind the curtain to speak with the media.)

Anyway, Streeter assured me that Fleischer is "a consultant, pure and simple. He is not a spokesperson."

She also said Fleischer was hired only to fill the gap between resigning communications chief Darryl Seibel, whose last official day is Friday, and whoever the USOC chooses to replace Seibel.

"I wouldn’t even call [Fleischer] an interim person," Streeter said.

So the consultancy is likely to be terminated when the new communications chief is in place?

"Highly likely,’’ Streeter said. "He may stay on a little while to take pressure off while the new person is getting up to speed. It is not a long-term gig."

I knew Streeter, a member of the Green Bay Packers board, had become familiar with Fleischer’s work as a sports PR consultant when the Packers hired him during the Brett Favre retirement saga.

I had not yet brought Fleischer’s Bush baggage into the conversation when I asked Streeter why she had chosen him. But she alluded to it unprompted by answering: "It was his body of work that I had witnessed firsthand and understood from others. I never considered politics as part of the decision."

Aha!  The "P" word.  My opening to ask if she considered the symbolic impact that hiring Fleischer might have.

There was a long pause. Then she sidestepped the question.

"He will not be a spokesperson,’’ she said. "He will not be tied in any way, shape or form to the [Chicago] bid. He is purely a strategic lens serving as a bridge between Darryl’s tenure and the next chief of communications we hire."

And, I continued, you didn’t think this might be viewed as somewhat controversial?

"I did not," she said, without hesitation.

Yes, that sounded a little bit disingenuous.

But the rest of her answers satisfactorily covered the issues left open by the lack of a formal announcement about the hiring of a consultant with a very high profile.

She also saved me from trying to follow the yellow brick road.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: USOC consultant and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer leaves federal court in Washington, D.C., after testifying in the 2007 trial of former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby. Credit: Associated Press / David White

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