When pitching great Roger Clemens and his former trainer, Brian McNamee, answered questions from a congressional committee yesterday about Clemens' alleged steroid use, one of them wasn't telling the truth.
That disconnect in credibility, rather than steroids or human growth hormone, was the theme of the nearly five-hour hearing. Congressmen spent much of the session picking at the stories of Clemens and McNamee.
Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said in setting up the thrust of questioning.
Neither Clemens nor McNamee seemed to emerge as a beacon of truth, said attorneys, crisis handlers and image consultants who observed the hearing.
Clemens did not do a good job of explaining why McNamee or ex-teammate Andy Pettitte would falsely link him to drug use, said Gene Grabowski, a Washington-based crisis manager who has prepared numerous clients for congressional hearings.
"Clemens is not doing badly under the circumstances, but the problem he has is that his case is hard to make logically," Grabowski said. "I don't know that he hurt himself, but he certainly didn't help himself."
Grabowski said Clemens was effective at raising credibility issues about McNamee.
"He and his advisers did a good job of getting to the Hill in advance and creating a good bit of doubt," he said.
Clemens' increasingly vehement denials suggest his attorneys, at least, believe him, said Columbia University law lecturer Robert Kheel.
"From a lawyer's perspective, it's really fascinating, because you're opening him up to serious perjury charges if he's not telling the truth," he said. "You certainly wouldn't advise your client to take this tack if you were harboring any doubts that he's telling the truth. It's too dangerous."
Clemens has risked too much, said Tom Buchanan, a Washington-based attorney who advised the baseball commissioner's office during its gambling investigation of Pete Rose.
"I think he's made a mistake by taking the offensive," Buchanan said. "He's now faced with Pettitte, Pettitte's wife, [Chuck] Knoblauch, the physical evidence. It's not good, not good. It's difficult with a client of this stature, because things get out of control once you open that Pandora's box."
Experts who deal with image more than law said Clemens' performance was strong - but only if he's actually innocent.
"While the vehemence of Clemens' denials is a smart strategy if he's truly innocent, it's a risky approach as the evidence of his guilt mounts," said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports marketing consultant.
"It certainly didn't work for Marion Jones, and only heightens the perception of Clemens as an arrogant jock who holds himself above the law. He's well past the point where a contrite 'I made a mistake' confession will elicit any sympathy from the public."
Grabowski agreed but said if Clemens were innocent, his vehemence would be merited.
"He's acting like an innocent man would act," the crisis manager said. "And he's acting consistently with his reputation as a feisty, straight-up guy. If you're going to declare your innocence, declare it loudly."
He said he would now advise Clemens to ratchet back his emotion and search for tangible holes in McNamee's case.
Congressional skepticism was equally divided between the pitcher and his ex-trainer.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, repeatedly asked Clemens if he remembered he was under oath when querying why the pitcher's friend, Andy Pettitte, would have lied about a conversation in 1999 or 2000 regarding human growth hormone.
"The person I believe most is Mr. Pettitte," Cummings said. He later said Clemens was a hero of his but "hard to believe."
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, was equally fierce in questioning McNamee's integrity. He noted inconsistencies between statements McNamee made to newspapers and those he ultimately made to investigators. He also asked McNamee why the story he offered to investigators kept changing.
"I don't know what to believe," Burton told the former trainer. "But I know one thing I don't believe and that's you."
The committee spent the better part of an hour trying to discern whether Clemens attended a party at former teammate Jose Canseco's Florida home in 1998. McNamee said Clemens was there. Clemens, Canseco and others said he was not.
Everyone seemed to agree that the party had little to do with steroid proliferation in baseball. But that wasn't the point. The committee was more concerned about each man's credibility.
Kheel, at least, wondered why Congress fixated on the he-said, he-said rather than broader issues of drugs in sports.
"I'm disappointed that they have nothing better to do than sort out the particulars of a defamation suit that will be heard somewhere in Texas," the Columbia professor said. "There's a forum to decide those issues, and it's hard to understand how that's a legitimate purpose of Congress."
Many now expect the Justice Department to open a perjury investigation of Clemens. Federal attorneys will feel pressure to do so because they've already charged home run king Barry Bonds, Buchanan said. But they might be reluctant to charge Clemens, he added, given the credibility questions about McNamee, who would presumably be a key witness.
On Roger Clemens Vs. Brian Mcnamee
Truth or consequences
Witnesses' credibility at issue; Clemens' denial could be risky strategy
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