Nutrition company creator feels heat

Conte being connected to one of largest busts for steroids in sports history

October 22, 2003|By T.J. Quinn | T.J. Quinn,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

SAN FRANCISCO - Like a lot of professional musicians, Victor Conte finally had enough of late nights and empty refrigerators. "Walkin' Fish," as he was known, hung up the bass guitar he played for the renowned Tower of Power and other Bay area bands, and threw himself into the world of nutrition in the early 1980s.

"He was just raising a family - all musicians have a sideline," says Freddy Roulette, who played with Conte in the band The Pure Food and Drug Act. "After [the band] broke up, he got into that business."

Conte, who had attended Fresno State Community College on a track scholarship and had no formal medical or scientific training, created BALCO Labs, a nutrition and supplement company that aggressively pursued and collected relationships with elite athletes in every sport.

That business also has Conte under enough legal heat to make John Gotti squirm.

Already under federal investigation for money laundering and health-care fraud and waiting to hear the findings of a federal grand jury, Conte was accused Thursday of trafficking in steroids. According to the Associated Press, 40 athletes, including Major League Baseball and NFL players, have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury looking into the case.

Conte is already in negotiations with the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco to resolve their complaint that BALCO submitted more than $1 million in fraudulent Medicare claims. His brother Michael, also named in the complaint, pleaded guilty to similar charges involving a different laboratory he owned, Monterey Medical Labs, in October 2000.

The new accusation does more than pile up Conte's mounting legal and business problems; it connects him to what officials are calling the largest steroids bust in sports history, and it puts an unflattering light on the athletes who have worked with him in his legitimate vocations - nutritional analysis and the sale of legal diet supplements.

His star client, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, raved about Conte's work with a zinc and magnesium supplement known as "ZMA" in the June Muscle & Fitness magazine.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, an Olympic sports watchdog organization, announced last week that it had discovered a "designer" steroid that has been eluding detection for an unknown length of time.

"We are fairly certain that the substance came from Victor Conte and BALCO Labs," said Terry Madden, chief executive of USADA. "We are not sure of their exact role - there may have been many other people involved."

Namely chemists sophisticated enough to create a new steroid, molecularly similar to known steroids but undetectable by current testing methods. Conte's lab in Burlingame, Calif., was raided Sept. 3 by the IRS' criminal division and the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force, but he has not been charged with a crime, and law enforcement officials have refused to say why the lab, along with the home of Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was raided.

The discovery of the new steroid, THG, was the result of a different kind of investigation, an unprecedented scientific search made possible by an anonymous tipster who phoned the USADA's Colorado Springs office in June to say he had a syringe filled with a new steroid that could not be detected in available tests. He did not identify himself other than to say he was a "high-profile" track and field coach, but he said the name of the man who provided the syringe was Conte.

The syringe was sent via overnight mail to Colorado Springs, and then on to UCLA pharmacology professor Don Catlin, the director of the Olympic Drug Testing Center.

Catlin's team finished a molecular map in early August, and it was able to give the drug a name: tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG. It was similar in structure to two other anabolic steroids already on the banned substances list, gestrinone and trenbolone.

USADA officials then rechecked 350 urine samples taken at track and field events over the summer for THG. The USADA's Madden would not specify a number, but says, "I know of no other drug bust that is larger than this involving the number of athletes involved."

A longtime friend says he doubts that Conte is a criminal - but said Conte threw himself into the world of nutrition and supplements with characteristic abandon.

"That's how he is - whatever he does, he just learns it on his own from the inside-out," says Coleman Hahn, a former roommate and bandmate of Conte's.

After he helped develop a supplement called ZMA, Conte went through track coaches, trainers and other intermediaries to reach out to elite athletes, telling them he had a system to help them improve their general health and performances. Some, such as Bonds and Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski, swore by him. Other athletes, who said they either tried ZMA or allowed Conte to analyze their blood, said they did not know that their names were listed as clients on BALCO's Web site.

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