Federal prosecutors got their conviction on Barry Bonds. Now on deck: Roger Clemens and, maybe, Lance Armstrong.
The government’s hazy victory in the Bonds trial — one conviction, three counts undecided — left an equally split opinion on how prosecutors might proceed in the two high-profile doping-related sports cases left on its docket.
Some view the Bonds trial and Wednesday’s verdict as more fuel for prosecutors to pursue these kind of cases, while skeptics said the trial produced more questions about why the government is spending so much time and money going after high-profile athletes in less-than-airtight cases.
“My guess is, I’d expect other investigations to continue,” said a former federal prosecutor, Laurie Levenson of Loyola University Law School. “I think people will still realize how hard it was to bring a case like this. But I doubt federal prosecutors will be walking away from cases like this. In fact, this will probably embolden them.”
Bonds, arguably the biggest name to emerge from the federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, could receive up to 10 years in prison for his obstruction-of-justice conviction, though federal guidelines call for 15-21 months. For similar offenses in the BALCO case, the judge in the Bonds case has sentenced defendants to home confinement.
Whether or not baseball’s all-time home run leader is incarcerated, the case once again brought up questions about the government’s role in fighting doping in sports.
“What bothers me is that you’ve got a very powerful federal government that has the money and time and resources to ruin someone’s reputation,” said Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who last month questioned the Food and Drug Administration about its bankrolling of parts of the investigation into Armstrong. “Why did it take eight years to get to this point on Barry Bonds? And with all the problems we’ve got, why are we sitting here at the end of an eight-year investigation?”
The answer, according to the government and those in the anti-doping community: Because the cases are worth pursuing, both on their own merits and because of the messages they send about the need to play fair — at the highest levels, all the way down to little league.
The prosecutors, of course, make their biggest headlines when they reach for the big boys.
Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, has long been accused of doping despite his long and vehement string of denials and the fact that he has never tested positive. Led by BALCO investigator Jeff Novitzky, who now works for the FDA, the U.S. government has been looking into the cyclist’s case for nearly 12 months. Armstrong’s representatives declined comment when asked about the Bonds verdict.
Meanwhile, Clemens is scheduled to go on trial in July for lying to Congress for denying using steroids. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, declined comment.
The Clemens case is one of the many with roots that can be traced to BALCO, which, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has resulted in the suspension of 25 athletes and coaches in Olympic sports along with the forfeiture of more than 30 Olympic medals, U.S. titles and world records. It also helped lead to the drafting of the Mitchell Report, which outed many of baseball’s best players, including Clemens, for alleged steroid use.
“BALCO was a game changer in preventing fraud, corruption and illicit drug use from ruining our country’s sports,” said USADA’s Travis Tygart, in explaining the importance of the government investigation.
He said Wednesday’s verdict “sends a clear message to those who have participated in criminal activity that nobody is above the law.”
Some experts, however, think American investigators may have been hurt by the jury’s somewhat head-scratching conclusion. It found Bonds guilty of obstruction of justice but did so without reaching decisions on charges that he lied to the grand jury when he said he never knowingly took steroids or HGH, and when he said he was never injected by anyone except his doctors.
“A verdict like this doesn’t necessarily vindicate those who favor these prosecutions,” said Robert Mintz, a high-profile defense attorney in New Jersey. “To me, it raises questions about the Roger Clemens case and any others that might be brought in the future, as to whether or not the time and expense government puts into these cases is really warranted.”
BALCO founder Victor Conte, who spent four months in jail for money laundering and a steroid distribution charge, said the Bonds case is really proof of the government’s determination to make examples out of so-called celebrity defendants.
“What needs to come out of this is people need to look a lot more closely at who’s holding Novitzky and Company accountable,” Conte said.
Kingston is one of the few in the federal government who has done so publicly, thus far.
As a member of the House subcommittee that oversees the FDA, he’s concerned about that agency’s role in going after drug cheats.
“It’s sort of like if you have police down at the homeless shelter dishing out food — that’s great, but who’s watching the bad guys?” Kingston said.
There are many in the anti-doping camp, however, who believe government plays a key role in cleaning up sports and helping set an example for millions of adults and children. In cases involving Marion Jones and others, anti-doping authorities have cooperated with government investigations to obtain some of their best evidence that led to suspensions and stripped medals.
“I have a huge amount of sympathy and support for people who say, ‘I want our law-enforcement agencies enforcing the law, and we don’t need to impose additional work on them,’” said Andy Parkinson, head of United Kingdom Anti-Doping. “But we absolutely recognize in the UK that sport can’t fight doping on its own, just the same way it can’t fight corruption, fraud, any of those things by itself.”