Barry U.S. Bonds

A few irregularities to ponder as the feds finally haul the home run king to court

The thing to realize about the BALCO steroids scandal, which lurches into its most headline-grabbing phase yet today when baseball home run king Barry Bonds is arraigned on five counts of perjury and obstruction in a San Francisco courtroom, is that the federal government's underlying criminal case has been closed for more than 28 months.

On July 29, 2005, Ukrainian-born track coach Remi Korchemny pleaded guilty to a lone misdemeanor charge of distributing the legal stimulant modafinil without a prescription, a crime that netted him not a single day behind bars. Two weeks prior, Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) founder Victor Conte and Barry Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson (also affiliated with BALCO) each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to illegally distribute anabolic steroids and one count of money laundering, for which they served four months and three months in prison, respectively.

A fourth defendant, BALCO Vice President James Valente, copped to a single count of conspiracy and was sentenced to probation, meaning that in the most publicized steroids investigation in U.S. history, 40 of the original 42 charges—which were announced with great fanfare by then-top cop John Ashcroft in February 2004—were dropped faster than a Tim Wakefield knuckleball, resulting in a combined seven months of prison for the criminals. As the steroid prohibitionists at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote at the time, with palpable disappointment, the criminal case "seemed to end with a whimper."

But there's plenty of evidence that the prosecutorial "bang" in this interminable case (of five-plus years and counting) has always been more about publicly shaming elite athletes and punishing witnesses who don't cooperate with the feds than rooting out any vast criminal conspiracy.

Take sentencing, for example. Bonds' trainer Anderson did his three months behind bars, but was then twice hauled back to prison on civil contempt charges for refusing to testify in front of grand juries investigating his boss for perjury. Total time of incarceration for non-cooperation? Fourteen months. He was released the day of Bonds' indictment [PDF], leaving his defense team, led by high-profile lawyer Mark Geragos, sputtering with fury.

"It's infuriating, when you read the indictment," Geragos told the Chronicle. "Is there anything in that indictment that wasn't known a year ago? If that is the case, clearly, putting Greg in for a year was not only punitive, but was misleading the court in that [federal prosecutors] said his testimony was indispensable for the investigation. [...] The whole thing is a crock of shit. He's never said word one."

Anderson is hardly the only bug on the windshield of what has now been a three-grand jury process. Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, co-authors of the best-selling Bonds/BALCO expose Game of Shadows (soon to be an HBO movie), were sentenced to 18 months for contempt in refusing to divulge the source of the grand jury leaks they published to spectacular effect within hours of the most famous witnesses' testimony. They would likely be in prison right now had not Troy Ellerman, the lawyer for fourth defendant James Valente, admitted at the last minute to being the leaker. Ellerman is currently serving out a 30-month sentence for obstruction of justice—by far the longest prison term in the BALCO case.

It's no wonder that the original four BALCO co-defendants are spooked about a Sept. 11, 2007 court order that they return or destroy all court-provided documents relating to their cases. In a scandal that has long since passed into the tail-chasing phase, every interaction with the punitive-minded courtroom is a potential charge of perjury, obstruction or contempt. "Given this history," their motion reads, "Mr. Conte, Mr. Anderson and the other moving parties have more than a speculative fear that the Court's order will expose them to renewed threat of prosecution."

The government's priorities were on stark display in October when lead Internal Revenue Service BALCO investigator Jeff Novitzky—a man who, according to a damning May 2004 Playboy magazine profile, had lobbied various federal agencies for years to launch a steroids sting, "always with Bonds as the lure"—squeezed a plea deal out of track and field superstar Marion Jones. "To extract her confession," the New York Times wrote in a mostly flattering profile of Novitzky last month, "he used the leverage of a more serious charge from an unrelated check-fraud scheme." Getting Jones to weepily admit in public that she'd been lying all along about steroids, it seems, was more important than ferreting out her role in "a scheme to defraud numerous banks out of millions of dollars by laundering stolen, altered and counterfeit checks."

Barry Bonds was investigated—by two grand juries—on a more serious charge as well: tax evasion. But all that's left now is a case in which, as Columbia Law School professor John C. Coffee Jr. recently put it in the New York Times, "Bonds's prosecution seems likely to rely to a greater degree on circumstantial evidence, making it harder for the government than in its recent prosecutions of Martha Stewart and I. Lewis Libby. Those cases involved factual disputes. Bonds, however, is contesting not whether he consumed steroids, but only what he believed he was doing."

To build that case, the government will likely subpoena yet another Murderer's Row of professional ballplayers, put Greg Anderson on the dock once more (exposing him this time to criminal contempt, instead of just civil contempt), and leverage the soon-to-be released findings from a blue-ribbon steroids panel chaired by former Senate majority leader George Mitchell (with the charitable assistance of one Jeff Novitzky). Perjury traps will spring up like mushrooms, not just in Bonds' proceedings, but in the forthcoming trials of Jones' former coach Trevor Graham (for lying to a federal agent) and Olympic cyclist Tammy Thomas (perjury).

The results of this publicity blitz are 100% predictable—Barry Lamar Bonds will be declared guilty with prejudice in the court of public opinion long before his case ever reaches a verdict. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball will continue toughening its testing and punishment standards for banned substances, and Congress will continue adding penalties to the illegal distribution of legal substances. It may not be justice, but from the federal government's point of view it will be Mission Accomplished.

Matt Welch is an editor at reason.

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  • ||

    Excellent column.

  • ||

    My take from a previous thread -

    I despise Barry Bonds. He's an asshole. If the Tigers signed him, I'd boycott my home team. I am presently shedding no tears about his predicament.

    I had to get that off my chest. He should not be prosecuted. I'll defend him vocally because he is getting railroded for
    A) Being an asshole.
    B) Breaking Hank Aaron's HR record.
    C) Cheating while he did it. (Cheating at sports is NOT against the law. Sports governing bodies take care of that shit. Ask Marion Jones about that).
    D) MLB turned a blind eye to steroid abuse because home runs fill the bleachers, now they're in CYA mode.
    E) He lied to a grand jury investigating something the government has no business intruding into.

    A thru D are the real reasons he was indicted.
    E was the excuse.


    That is so much easier than composing it again.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    The Juice goes down.

    And what J sub said.

  • T||

    Well, have we all learned an important lesson from Hilary Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Barry Bonds?

    When they haul your ass in to testify, you need to suddenly and mysteriously develop a memory like a sieve. Lard that testimony up with "I don't recall" and "My memory is faulty" and "to the best of my limited recollection". They can't bust you later for perjury for something you didn't say.

  • ||

    The only thing that could make me care less about this is if the sport were basketball.

  • ||

    Frankly, I'm fascinated that the congress-critters are so fixated on baseball...besides those folks, does anyone even care about baseball anymore?

  • Episiarch||

    Intended message: if the feds want to fuck you, they will, no matter what it takes.

  • ||

    MOre reasons why the entire Justice Department needs to be fired and replaced with saner people. Yes, steroids are illegal and probably dangerous to your health. If the Justice Department wants to spend some of its assets going after roid heads who sell to high school jocks, I don't really have a problem with that. But, Bonds and Jones are professionals and knew exactly what they were doing. I have no sypathy for either one of them if they later suffer health effects from their steroid use. Was that illegal? Yes. Why on earth is this a federal case? What a mamouth waste of government resources. This is just like the Tommy Chong case; a prosecution made so that the prosecutors get to be on TV. Disgusting really.

  • ||

    It's amazing to me how many people have convicted Bonds before he has had his day in court. I personally think a person is always innocent until convicted.

  • ed||

    does anyone even care about baseball anymore?

    MLB keeps setting attendance records, so yes. Yes we do.

  • ||

    When they haul your ass in to testify, you need to suddenly and mysteriously develop a memory like a sieve. Lard that testimony up with "I don't recall" and "My memory is faulty" and "to the best of my limited recollection". They can't bust you later for perjury for something you didn't say.

    See Also: Roberto Gonzales.

  • Brett||

    Come on, no Tammy Thomas reference is complete without the obligatory picture. Can we be sure she never used steroids?

    http://images.velonews.com/images/news/11333.16976.t.jpg

    And yes, I still care about baseball, particularly my beloved Stros.

  • ||

    does anyone even care about baseball anymore?

    Just patriotic heterosexuals. Why do you ask?

  • ||

    Brett,

    In the words of Austin Powers "That is a man baby". Who are you trying to kid?

  • Matt Welch||

    Yes, steroids are illegal and probably dangerous to your health.

    Actually, most steroids that athletes use are legal, as long as you have a valid prescription.

  • LarryA||

    Used to be the worst thing you could do was POC, Piss Off the Cops. Now it's POP, Piss Off the Prosecution.

    Where did the Fifth Amendment go?

  • LarryA||

    PS: How can you not be in contempt of these courts?

  • VM||

    Jsub - "C" is only relevant because of "A", unfortunately.

    If bonds is convicted and has to spend time in jail, will the headline be "Barry Bondage"?

  • ||

    "Actually, most steroids that athletes use are legal, as long as you have a valid prescription."

    So is Vicadin and Oxycontin Matt. That said, I think poping both of those for long periods of time without a doctor's supervision is going to be pretty dangerous to your health.

  • ed||

    Johnny Clarke (our good buddy) must be a football fan. No steroids there. No sireee. Clean as a whistle. Move along now. Nothing to see.

  • abu hamza||

    re misguided prosecutorial and court resources. yes it's true. but I am glad the feds are focused on something other than busting medical marijuana clinics and the general circle-jerk on the constitution that is the War on Drugs.

    And why do you all assume that Barry Bonds has even taken steroids? he has never failed a drug test. The sports talk radio culture is racist and hates Barry Bonds. I didn't know Barry Bonds is the all-time walk leader until I read his interview in Jet. Jim Rome can shove that fact up his white asterisk.

  • Danny||

    Actually, it seems that there is a regular place for steroids. Not that this is the best example, but Danny Bonaduce certainly endorses using steroids in moderation. Clearly Bonds was not being very moderate in his usage, though. I just wanted to point out that, like most things, moderation can be overall beneficial and not prolifically harmful.

  • ||

    And why do you all assume that Barry Bonds has even taken steroids? he has never failed a drug test.

    We "all" (that's just me actually) assume that because I didn't just fall off the turnip truck.

    The sports talk radio culture is racist...

    Which explains all of the bad press that Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders, the Williams sisters, et al got, right?

    ...and hates Barry Bonds.

    Because he's an asshole. That shit tends to comes back to you in life.

  • T||

    re misguided prosecutorial and court resources. yes it's true. but I am glad the feds are focused on something other than busting medical marijuana clinics and the general circle-jerk on the constitution that is the War on Drugs.

    Why do you assume busting some guy for allegedly lying about his drug use isn't part of the War On Drugs?

  • stuartl||

    And why do you all assume that Barry Bonds has even taken steroids? he has never failed a drug test.

    Because he started having the best seasons of his career at age 37? Because he started bulking up at that age while working with a strength coach who later plead guilty to conspiracy to illegally distribute anabolic steroids? Because he has admitted to using a clear substance and a cream he thought were supplements, and BALCO distributed steroids known as "the cream" and "the clear?" Oh yes, and because we did not just fall off a turnip truck.

    FWIW, I don't think he should be prosecuted, but for aesthetic reasons I prefer baseball without steroids.

  • ||

    " Getting Jones to weepily admit in public that she'd been lying all along about steroids, it seems, was more important than ferreting out her role in "a scheme to defraud numerous banks out of millions of dollars by laundering stolen, altered and counterfeit checks."

    Of course it was. One helps actual victims, the other helps his career.

  • Brett||

    What J sub D said.

  • ||

    "But there's plenty of evidence that the prosecutorial "bang" in this interminable case (of five-plus years and counting) has always been more about publicly shaming elite athletes..."

    Giuliani rode the Wall Street luminaries he put away all the way to where he is today--why should the prosecutors in New York have all the fun?

  • jimmy||

    thanks for the martha stewart and scooter libby reference, matt. one can also add bill clinton. three high-ranking or famous people who, whatever one might think of them personally, were victims of perjury/obstruction traps when the underlying charges (insider trading/leaking valerie plame's name/sexual harassment) fell apart. ok, clinton's was a civil tort and impeachment rather than a criminal offense, but the analogy is still good.

    i hope barry beats it. he needs to demand a jury trial if this goes that far...let's hope for some good old jury nullification, or at least one african-american juror who won't put up with this bullshit. oh yeah, i do care about baseball too. i wish reason would write more about baseball and less about video games and comic books!

  • ||

    I'm still flabbergasted at the fools who say Bonds, "CHEATED" by taking steroids...

    Are these ball players adults that are eligible to get a driver's license, enter into a contract to buy a home, buy alcohol, and the myriad other things adults can do?

    Was Hank Aaron cheating when he had access to strength coaches, free weights, athletes' dinner table, whirlpools, helmets, personalized bats, and so forth when he broke the previous record?

    Why is there even a law against the use of steroids?

  • TokyoTom||

    Matt, great article. However, I am surprised you did not shine a brighter light on what a tremendous waste of government resources/taxpayers' money this whole exercise has been, all for the aggrandizement of the feds and the "greater good" of advancing the careers of particular prosecutors.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    Seems to me that all these high-level prosecutions for "lying to federal investigators" will have to backfire.

    I personally would not talk to a FI for any reason. There seems to be nothing in it for me, and everything to loose. After I am compelled to talk, it will be with a lawyer right at my side and me reluctant to say anything. This can not be a good way for the investigator to investigate anything.

    CoC

  • ||

    Was Bonds not offered immunity for the steroids if he only testified?

    Had he told the truth then, he would not be in this situation.

    I agree that this is a colossal waste of time, but ultimately, he did this to himself.

  • ||

    Also, he could have plead the 5th. Bonds could have avoided assisting the investigation without purgering or incriminating himself.

  • ||

    When people demonize testosterone makes you wonder why women (and even men) can take the female producing hormone Estrogen but our society does not allow men to take the male producing steroid Testosterone. Well, you can take it if you have a documented steroid deficientcy but you can't take it for the reason that it makes you look good, feel good or perform well in sports. Don't tell me it is because its "un-healthy" because that would be hippocrisy. Beating someone unconscious in boxing is unhealthy, running into a 300 lb linebaker in football is unhealthy. Professional sports really has never been truly concerned about the athletes health. This issue is more about the Federal Government and their failed war on drugs. The Federal Government is vastly overextending its authority when it tries to regulate medicine so it has to treat a medication as "drugs"

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