At the end of the day, what did we—the cash-strapped, debt-choked citizens footing the bill—really get from the $6 million ordeal?
AP Images/Noah Berger
When it comes to evaluating the United States v. Barry Lamar Bonds—and the federal war on performance-enhancing drugs in sports that spawned it—Victor Conte is easy to dismiss. After all, he was the pied piper of BALCO, the man behind the curtain of the biggest doping scandal in American athletic history. Even following a prison sentence, Conte remains outspoken, a little chastened and a lot defiant, a cheerful self-promoter unafraid to tweak and revel in his own dubious public image.
And yet: with the verdict now delivered in Bonds' long-delayed perjury trial—guilty on a single count of obstruction of justice; in essence, the former San Francisco Giants slugger was evasive before a grand jury, but didn't necessarily lie about never knowingly taking steroids—it's Conte who's asking the most pertinent question.
A larger, more serious question.
A question that can't be brushed off as casually as the individual posing it.
"I made mistakes," Conte said in an interview with The Atlantic this week. "I did bad things. I deserved to be punished. And I was. But at what point do you realize there are better uses of federal taxpayer dollars? Is it worth it? At the end of the day, what did they really get?"
A Bonds trial believed to cost $6 million. A sprawling, civil liberties-trampling investigation that began with questionable dumpster-diving by a small potatoes ex-jock turned tax investigator, morphed into a big-name athlete trophy safari, gave an undercover narcotics agent a weightlifting-induced stroke, ran up a reported $50-plus million price tag, and has no end in sight. Almost a decade of increasingly scarce federal legal resources that otherwise could be put toward drug and immigration cases, instead going to prove and re-prove an obvious, numbing point: Why yes, Virginia, elite athletes juice. (Next on Action News at 11: major corporations exploit the same tax loopholes their own lobbyists write!) Oh, to top things off, Conte now has a slobbery, sweet yellow lab named Balco. No joke.
Was it worth it?
At the end of the day, what did we—the cash-strapped, debt-choked citizens footing the bill—really get?
Do we really want to know?
Look, non-medical steroid use is a crime. So is distribution. In conventional drug cases, the latter typically is more serious than the former, both by statute and in practice. Law enforcement flips users to get to small-time dealers, and small-time dealers to get to bigger suppliers. Little fish lead to whales.
BALCO, by contrast, reversed the order. To wit: steroid supplier Angel "Memo" Heredia avoided punishment by testifying as a star witnesses against track coach Trevor Graham, who allegedly received drugs from Heredia and gave them to athletes such as one-time Olympic golden girl Marion Jones.
Jones ultimately was sentenced to six months in prison. Graham was placed under house arrest for one year. Neither individual was punished for actually using or distributing steroids; they were rapped, respectively, for Jones lying about her use and Graham being untruthful about his relationship with Heredia.
As for Heredia? The guy who was, you know, peddling drugs? He got nothing. Bupkus. To put things another way: suppose the DEA and federal prosecutors had the biggest cocaine importer in the state of California dead to rights. And suppose that instead of locking him or her up, they instead cut a deal to build stronger perjury cases against ... Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen.
Does that make sense?
Weighed against the investigative and prosecutorial manpower expended, the punishments meted out in the BALCO saga seem trivial. Conte: four months of house arrest, four months in a minimum-security facility. Former Bonds trainer Greg Anderson: three months in prison. Steroid chemist Patrick Arnold: three months in prison, three months of house arrest. Cyclist Tammy Thomas: six months of house arrest. That's a lot of ankle bracelets (and a preview for what Bonds can expect should not win his upcoming appeal). The list goes on. BALCO executive James Valente and affiliated track coach Remi Korchemny: one year of probation, each. Defense lawyer Troy Ellerman: 16 months in a federal prison for leaking the names of the athletes involved in the investigation, the longest and most severe sentence in the entire case.
Ellerman, it should be noted, is a former rodeo rider. No one has accused him—or his horses—of doping.
"When I went to prison camp, [television reporter] Martin Brashir reported that the [government] had spent $12.7 million investigating and prosecuting me," Conte says. "In prison, guys were smoking weed on the track. Playing soccer and tennis and basketball tournaments. Guys didn't even want to go home. And it's [likely] Barry Bonds is not going to jail. So what's this all about?"
Was the BALCO investigation about justice? Doing the right thing no matter the cost? Hard to say. It might about one man's Ahab-esque obsession. It might be about cheat-to-win extending beyond the field of play and into the courthouse. Three former colleagues reportedly claim lead federal investigator Jeff Novitzky pursued a personal vendetta against Bonds. Conte claims that a memo written by Novitzky following a 2003 raid on BALCO's headquarters "contains lies." (Novitzky reportedly does not use a tape recorder when conducting interviews, which is otherwise standard practice among feds). A federal judge ruled that Novitzky-led searches of labs performing confidential drug testing for Major League Baseball displayed "a callous disregard for constitutional rights" and violated the Fourth Amendment.