This is a story about garbage. There’s the actual garbage overzealous federal investigators examined in their efforts to prosecute a surly sports celebrity. There’s the shredding of the Bill of Rights, crudely ignored by the government in the name of obsession and ambition. Finally, there’s the thorough trashing of people’s reputations, not to mention the game of baseball. Welcome to The US v. Barry Bonds; please disregard the stench.
The case to prove that slugger Barry Bonds perjured himself in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) steroid investigation begins March 2. Yet after seven years of investigation, millions of dollars in work hours and countless ruined reputations, the US Attorney’s Office will arrive in court with virtually no leg to stand on. Judge Susan Illston struck down most of the prosecution’s case, a move ESPN legal expert Lester Munson called a “devastating” setback for prosecutors. The ruling was an indictment of not only the government’s case but its entire approach toward Bonds from day one. John Ashcroft’s Justice Department always seemed irrationally determined to prosecute Bonds. It was as obsessive as the fisherman Santiago attempting to bring home the great marlin in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
The embodiment of this obsession was IRS agent Jeff Novitzky. He broke open the BALCO case after spending a great deal of time, to the adulation of the press, literally sifting through garbage and sewage.
Novitzky was given the green light by President Bush and Ashcroft to go for the jugular. In 2004, accompanied by eleven agents, he marched into Comprehensive Drug Testing, the nation’s largest sports-drug testing company. Armed with a warrant to see the confidential drug tests of ten baseball players, he walked out with 4,000 supposedly sealed medical files, including every baseball player in the major leagues. As Jon Pessah wrote in ESPN magazine, “Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky’s actions a ‘callous disregard’ for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence….”
It was a frightening abuse of power, all aimed at imprisoning a prominent African-American athlete. Yet despite the landfills of trash, the government’s case always rested on a flimsy premise. Bonds’s contention under oath was that anything illegal he may have ingested was without prior knowledge. The only person who could contradict Bonds was his trainer and longtime friend Greg Anderson. The government pressed Anderson to give testimony. He refused, citing a promise made by the feds that he wouldn’t have to testify after pleading guilty to steroid distribution and money laundering in 2005. The feds stuck him in jail for thirteen months to soften him up, but he didn’t crack.
Anderson has remained firm even though in January, twenty FBI and IRS agents raided the home of his mother-in-law and threatened to punish her for tax evasion if Anderson didn’t spill. Similar threats have been made against his wife. Mark Geragos, Anderson’s attorney, told Yahoo Sports, “It’s such a blatant and transparent attempt to intimidate Greg. They’re acting like the Gestapo. Even the mafia spares the women and children.” Without Anderson, the state’s case was always weak. But now it is on serious life support. Illston ruled most of Novitzky and the government’s case inadmissible, for good reason.
The prosecution wanted to submit a surreptitiously recorded statement from Anderson as well as notations on what it calls his “drug calendar,” even though he would not testify to authenticate any of the evidence. Illston, to her credit, said no dice and declared those items inadmissible. The government has raised the specter of jailing Anderson again, but Illston remarked in a raised voice that jailing someone twice for refusing to testify would be beyond the pale.
The government is hinting that it will appeal Illston’s ruling, but that would indefinitely delay the trial. If the US Attorney’s Office does continue the case, it has made clear its next line of offense: it will have Bonds’s former mistress, Kimberly Bell, testify in detail about the alleged “shriveling” of Bonds’s testicles. Jeff Novitzky should be proud.
It’s way past time to say enough is enough.
Whether or not you are a Barry Bonds fan, or consider him to be just a step above a seal-clubbing, pitbull-fighting bank executive, every person of good conscience should be aghast at the way the Justice Department has gone about its business. Barry Bonds, Greg Anderson and maybe thousands of others have had their rights trampled on, all for the glory of a perjury case that looks to be going absolutely nowhere. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama have strongly indicated that the government is getting out of the steroid monitoring business. That is welcome, but after so many years, so many tax dollars and so many reputations destroyed, it all feels positively Pyrrhic.
At the end of The Old Man and the Sea, when Santiago finally returns to shore, his 18-foot catch has been reduced to a skeleton. A crowd gathers to gawk and imagine what the magnificent marlin once was. Santiago completed his journey with nothing, but he felt purified for the battle and slept deeply and proudly. As we pick through the bones of Barry Bonds, I can’t imagine Jeff Novitzky feels the same.