Federal Prosecutors on Steroids

Posted: Nov 20, 2007 12:01 AM
Federal Prosecutors on Steroids

I don't know enough about baseball to rail about what an arrogant lout Barry Bonds is, as so many others in the news biz do. I don't follow baseball. I'm no fan. Still, I am appalled at last week's federal indictment of Bonds on four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice. Of course, lying to federal authorities is wrong and poisonous to the criminal justice system, if Bonds lied. As for steroids, if Bonds took them -- and who thinks he didn't? -- he has devalued his home-run record and must live the rest of his life wondering if his body will break down because of his ambition.

My beef? I admire tenacious no-holds-barred prosecutors -- when they go after violent thugs, mobsters and would-be terrorists. The U.S. Department of Justice, however, has gone overboard in wielding its awesome might for years -- acting on a tip received in August 2002 -- to prolong a case it could have wrapped up long ago. The feds have crossed the line from closing a righteous case to prosecutorial overkill.

The charges against Bonds concern grand-jury testimony four years ago, on Dec. 4, 2003. Under grant of immunity (unless he lied), Bonds asserted that he never knowingly used banned steroids. He said he thought his personal trainer was treating him with flaxseed oil and arthritis balm.

As the San Francisco Chronicle's Lance Williams reported, prosecutors say they have a "mountain of evidence" -- including doping calendars showing Bonds' drug regimen and payments seized in raids in September 2003. The indictment claims that Bonds tested positive for two anabolic steroids.

Which raises the big question: Why did the U.S. attorney take another four years to indict? If their case is so strong, what were they waiting for?

Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, pleaded guilty to steroid dealing and served three months in prison. Afterward, when Anderson refused to testify against Bonds, a federal judge found him in contempt and sent Anderson behind bars. Anderson's attorney says that he is not cooperating with the authorities, but he was released last week.

In March 2005, Bonds' former girlfriend Kimberly Bell testified that the slugger told her that he had taken banned steroids. Still, the feds did not move for two years.

Last year, Williams and then-Chronicle reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada lived under a cloud after they refused a federal judge's order to reveal the confidential sources of stories they had written on the BALCO steroids scandal. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White held them in contempt and ordered them imprisoned for up to 18 months. White stayed the sentence pending appeal, then lifted it after Troy Ellerman, a former defense lawyer in the BALCO case, admitted to leaking the grand-jury transcripts. He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

The longest sentence served by any BALCO defendant was four months. Anderson served more time for not testifying against Bonds than he served for dealing designer steroids. You would think that not helping prosecutors is the bigger crime.

Joe Russoniello was nominated to become Northern California's U.S. attorney on Thursday. Attorney General Michael Mukasey assumed his post this month. They've both inherited this headache.

If prosecutors manage to win a guilty verdict, Bonds no doubt will have earned it. But I have to ask if this entire exercise was worth the price -- was worth sending Anderson to prison to serve more time than any BALCO sentence.

I have to question how federal prosecutors work -- extending a case for four years (during which Bonds broke the home-run record) when they say they had mountains of physical evidence.

If they consider perjury to be a threat to the system, why wait years to go after a man whom so many observers believe lied to a grand jury? Doesn't that undermine the system's credibility, too?

And I wonder why the feds have put so much energy into this case, when there are so many truly dangerous criminals out there.