Report: BALCO founder Conte reaches deal on four-month prison term

He'll plead to two felonies, will sign agreement today

Drugs

July 15, 2005|By Elliott Almond and Sean Webby | Elliott Almond and Sean Webby,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

SAN JOSE, Calif. - BALCO Laboratories founder Victor Conte Jr. struck a deal with federal prosecutors late yesterday that includes a four-month prison term and four months of house detention in a case that sparked the biggest sports drug scandal in history, the San Jose Mercury News has learned.

The case against Conte - the centerpiece of the government's internationally publicized criminal investigation into steroids - looks to be resolved with pleas to two felonies and a short stay in a minimum-security prison.

Conte, 54, plans to sign an agreement today, but it must be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston before the settlement is official. A hearing is scheduled for today in San Francisco before her.

"Mr. Conte has always accepted responsibility for the conduct reflected in this plea agreement and is looking forward to putting the case behind him," defense attorney Mary McNamara said in a prepared statement.

The plea bargain, reached after months of private negotiations, means the San Mateo man charged with giving elite athletes such as the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds and the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi performance-enhancing drugs will not face a potentially explosive trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 6.

The deal does not require Conte to cooperate with federal agents in their investigation, his attorneys said.

"We are pleased with the terms of the agreement and believe it represents a fair result in this case," said Ed Swanson, co-counsel for Conte.

The agreement signals an end to the first part of a three-year Internal Revenue Service investigation that introduced the word "juiced" into the American lexicon and changed the perception of baseball, football and Olympic sports.

Attorneys for the co-defendants - Greg Anderson, who is Bonds' personal trainer, Jim Valente, the BALCO vice president, and Remi Korchemny, an East Bay track coach - are said to be working on deals with federal prosecutors.

According to his attorneys, Conte, who confessed in a nationally televised interview that he gave steroids to elite athletes, pleaded guilty to two felony charges - illegal distribution of drugs and money laundering by promotion. He is expected to be held in a minimum-security facility in California for four months.

The move toward the settlement began in earnest earlier this spring, driven by the potentially unpredictable outcome of a jury trial.

A trial also posed major risks for potential witnesses such as Bonds and Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, who could have faced embarrassing and possibly career-threatening questions.

Defense lawyers knew they would be able to forge a better deal if they stuck together and presented a solid front, even against what seemed, at times, like incontrovertible evidence.

For example, Jeff Novitzky, the lead IRS investigator who instigated the case, wrote in a memorandum that Conte confessed to giving the designer steroid THG and a testosterone cream to 27 athletes, including Gary Sheffield, Bonds and Giambi. Two defense lawyers no longer involved in the case had repeatedly said Conte never confessed. But the lawyers couldn't refute what he told ABC's 20/20 and ESPN the Magazine in December.

In a television interview, Conte said he created an illegal drug program for Jones weeks before she won an unprecedented five track and field medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He said he watched Jones inject human growth hormone (hGH) after he taught her how.

Jones filed a $25 million defamation suit against Conte for making those statements. The case is set to begin after the criminal proceedings end.

According to court records, Anderson admitted to Novitzky that he gave some former Giants players steroids but denied he gave drugs to Bonds, his childhood friend. In another memorandum, Valente allegedly told the agent Bonds received THG and testosterone cream from BALCO. Valente's former attorney denied his client made that statement.

Although the original case nearing an end, "BALCO" - which began as an acronym for an obscure and now defunct laboratory - lives as a symbol of the international steroids scandal.

The case has led to a revised drug-testing policy in baseball and calls for reforms across the country.

It has led to a series of Congressional hearings and a call for tougher federal anti-steroid laws. Proposed legislation involving America's four major sports calls for two-year bans for first offenses and lifetime suspensions for second violations.

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