The BALCO steroid scandal has given new meaning to the concept of team chemistry, but the federal government cracked down yesterday on an operation that allegedly supplied illegal performance-enhancing drugs to scores of big-name athletes.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced at an afternoon news conference that a federal grand jury in San Francisco had handed down a 42-count indictment against the four central figures in what the government charges was a conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and other drugs to professional baseball and football players, track and field stars and other athletes.
Victor Conte, Jr. and James J. Valente, who operate the Bay Area Lab Cooperative (BALCO) in Burlingame, Calif., were indicted along with high-profile track coach Remi Korchemny, and Greg. F. Anderson, the personal trainer of San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, after a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. The four defendants are charged with conspiracy to distribute steroids, possession of human growth hormone, misbranding of drugs with intent to defraud and money laundering.
"Illegal steroid use calls into question not only the integrity of the athletes who use them, but also the integrity of the sports that those athletes play," said Ashcroft, who was flanked by IRS commissioner Mark Everson, FDA commissioner Mark McClellan and California law enforcement officials. "Steroids are bad for sports, they're bad for players, they're bad for young people who hold athletes up as role models."
The announcement came three weeks after President Bush - in his annual State of the Union address - called on athletes, coaches and sports organizations to set a better example for youth by renouncing the use of steroids and other illegal performance-enhancers.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players' Association, said he was relieved no athlete was named in indictments, but he said the charges are a clear warning.
"You would hope athletes would learn from this," Upshaw said. "It's illegal and you can get in trouble for it, and they can't avoid seeing that."
Steroid abuse has been a major problem in football and track and field for decades, and Major League Baseball recently instituted a testing program after retired stars Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti revealed in 2002 that a high percentage of baseball players were taking the anabolic shortcut to bigger bodies.
Public awareness of the dangers of other chemical supplements spiked last February when Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died of heatstroke after taking three capsules of a weight-loss aid containing the herbal stimulant ephedra.
And the grand jury is not stopping with its indictments. It believes it has a right to know which baseball players tested positive for drugs last year, and has subpoenaed records of the two companies that conducted the tests for the league.
The players reluctantly agreed to a testing program as part of the 2002 labor negotiations on the condition that the results would remain confidential and that players would not be identified in the first year of the testing.
The players association and Major League Baseball are engaged in discussions with the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco in an effort to have the subpoena quashed, lawyers familiar with the effort told The New York Times.
"One of the tenets of the collective bargaining agreement was that this testing would be anonymous and confidential," Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, said. "As an institution, we try to stand by the agreements we make."
Bonds has long been suspected of using artificial means to bulk up from the lanky rookie who broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 to the 240-pound hulk who set baseball's single-season record with 73 home runs in 2001.
"I am saddened by the news of the indictment against my trainer and friend," Bonds said.
Korchemny coaches world championship sprinter Kelli White and European sprint champion Dwain Chambers, both of whom have had positive drug tests.
The BALCO scandal surfaced after a track coach delivered a used syringe to U.S. anti-doping officials that contained traces of a previously undetected steroid called tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). Five track and field athletes and four Oakland Raiders players have since tested positive for the substance.
Conte has denied that BALCO is the source of the designer steroid, but investigators cited e-mails from Conte to athletes detailing a scheme to beat the drug-testing regimens.
Everson also indicated that the IRS investigation revealed that BALCO traded performance-enhancing drugs to athletes for doing promotional work for a second Conte company called SNAC Systems, which sold legal nutritional supplements and performed blood screening on athletes.
The defendants could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if they are convicted on all counts.
Terry Madden, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, predicted in a statement that the indictments were just the beginning of a federal campaign against the proliferation of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
"We fully expect that developments in the U.S. attorney's proceedings and our ongoing investigation will lead to the initiation of more doping cases against athletes and others," Madden said.
The Associated Press, Tribune news services and The New York Times contributed to this article.