A bit too connected?

Mitchell's links to Red Sox, ESPN raising concerns

Steroid investigation

December 12, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Baseball officials have billed former Sen. George Mitchell's report on steroids as an honest reckoning with the game's drug past.

But given Mitchell's position as director for the Boston Red Sox, some have questioned whether commissioner Bud Selig made the right choice to restore public confidence in the sport.

Mitchell's connection to the Red Sox isn't the only aspect of his resume under scrutiny. Until January, he was also chairman of the board of The Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN, one of the game's chief broadcast partners. Some writers and observers have questioned how a person with such strong ties to baseball can be objective.

At the World Series this year, Selig praised Mitchell's "impeccable credentials" and noted that he has removed himself from any involvement with the Red Sox while working on the investigation.

"There's not a scintilla of evidence that he's done anything unethical," the commissioner said.

A spokesman for the investigation did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment. Mitchell's report is being reviewed by Major League Baseball, a baseball official told the Associated Press, and it could be released as soon as tomorrow.

Though Mitchell's connection to the Red Sox has elicited few public grumbles from anyone in baseball, some, such as Hall of Famer and Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, have criticized Selig's choice. These skeptics don't question Mitchell's honor. They simply wonder why Selig would leave any room for doubt about an investigation that's largely a public relations exercise.

The question has been a popular topic on fan blogs around the country. ESPN.com published an article yesterday featuring several anonymous quotes from general managers who worried about Mitchell's objectivity.

Law and public policy professors who deal with ethics issues say Mitchell's business connections at least raise potential questions for the public about his objectivity.

"There is no question that there could be findings that he has uncovered in his steroid investigation that would, if publicly revealed, be damaging to the interests of either or both the Red Sox and/or Disney," Gary R. Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law, wrote in an e-mail. "I do not know whether in fact there is a conflict of interest, because I don't know what he has discovered in his investigation. But I do know that he is in a position where there could be such a conflict, and certainly, skeptics could claim that his report may lack some credibility because if in fact there is a conflict of interest, the report may be `massaged' to hide it."

Stanford ethics professor Deborah Rhode said she doubts Mitchell would jeopardize his reputation by behaving unethically but said the reality of his actions might not eliminate public skepticism.

"If you're trying to restore public confidence, you want to avoid both the reality and the appearance of a conflict," she said. "I think that, given his experience, Sen. Mitchell would bend over backwards to make sure there's no real conflict. But there may be no way for him to allay all public doubts."

Such questions are common in public life, she said, where the experts appointed to investigate issues often have ties to the people involved in those issues.

"On the positive side of it, you get someone who is very interested and knowledgeable about the matter," she said.

Washington attorney John Dowd, who investigated Pete Rose's gambling for Major League Baseball, expressed misgivings about Mitchell when Selig announced his choice last year. But Dowd said after meeting with Mitchell and receiving updates on his efforts, he's convinced the former senator has done a good job.

"I don't think it's an issue at all," Dowd said. "He's been given a terrifically difficult job and he's doing the best he can. ... It's ultimately about the integrity of what you do. That's all that matters, whether you do an honest, fair and complete job."

Some confusion has lingered over Mitchell's role with the Red Sox. When John Henry and Tom Werner purchased the club with a group of investors in 2001, published reports listed the former senator as one of those investors. In a 2004 interview with CNN, Mitchell said he had a small stake in the team.

But at the World Series this year, Selig said Mitchell has never owned a share of the team. Red Sox spokesman John Blake confirmed that this week, saying Mitchell played a minor advisory role (he did receive compensation before the steroid investigation began).

"Day to day, he never played more than a minimal role," Blake said. "And since he's been doing the report, he's divorced himself entirely from his role with the team."

Blake added that the club hopes Mitchell will return to his advisory role when the investigation concludes.

Mitchell answered questions about a potential conflict when the probe was announced.

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