BALCO Founder Gets Prison Term for Steroid Distribution

The founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, Victor Conte, was sentenced to four months in prison Tuesday for providing professional athletes with performance-enhancing drugs. A longer sentence was prevented by guidelines regarding steroid distribution.

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Here in California, the man at the center of the BALCO sports doping scandal is going to prison. Victor Conte, founder of BALCO, the Bay-area laboratory cooperative, was sentenced yesterday to four months in prison. Two other defendants were sentenced for their involvement in a case that's brought widespread attention to the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

In July, three defendants indicted in the BALCO case agreed to plead guilty to illegally distributing steroids to some of the world's top athletes. Yesterday in San Francisco, federal Judge Susan Illston approved the plea agreements, which include the following punishments: For Victor Conte, a four-month prison term and four months' home confinement. For Greg Anderson, personal trainer to baseball superstar Barry Bonds, three months in prison and three months' confinement; for James Valente, BALCO vice president, probation. A fourth defendant, renowned track coach Remi Korchemny, will be sentenced at a later date.

Last year, former Attorney General John Ashcroft held a nationally televised news conference to announce the BALCO indictments. Ashcroft vowed to prosecute steroid distributors to the fullest extent of the law. `It is a call to the values that make our nation strong and free,' he said. His words seem a far cry from yesterday's sentences. Indeed, even Judge Illston the punishment was much lighter than what she regularly hands out to common drug dealers. Kevin Ryan, the US attorney for the northern district of California, said yesterday in a conference call that prosecutors were restricted by sentencing guidelines for crimes involving anabolic steroids.

Mr. KEVIN RYAN (US Attorney): For whatever reason, at the time that anabolic steroids were added to the guidelines, they were treated differently.

GOLDMAN: Anabolic steroids were classified as Schedule III controlled substances, along with drugs such as amphetamines, opium and morphine. But Ryan says it takes a lot more steroids than the other Schedule III drugs to warrant a stricter sentence. Since Conte, Anderson and Valente were dealing with what Ryan calls a small amount of steroids, they got what appear to be lenient sentences.

Mr. RYAN: It's a sentencing guidelines issue. Congress is aware of it, and I do think, as a result of this case and other issues, that you will see these types of drugs and these types of performance-enhancing substances--the sentences changed.

GOLDMAN: Despite the concerns, the BALCO scandal has had a significant impact since it began two years ago. That's when law enforcement agents raided Conte's Bay-area laboratory cooperative and pulled back the cloak of secrecy that enshrouds the world of performance-enhancing drug use in sports. Suddenly the public became aware of designer steroids, which are built to avoid detection by drug testers. Some of the biggest names in sports--Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi--were linked to Conte and BALCO. And from track and field to major-league baseball, widespread suspicions arose that athletes' accomplishments weren't just because of hard work and a good diet. Again, here's US attorney Kevin Ryan.

Mr. RYAN: This case galvanized the debate about steroids. Both houses of the Congress are focused on this issue. This case has had ramifications way beyond what the normal ramifications are for us in law enforcement.

GOLDMAN: And the BALCO case is not over. Officials are investigating those who allegedly supplied illegal drugs to Conte and his lab. Outside the courtroom yesterday, Conte read a statement saying he wanted to join the fight against steroids in sports. `I've decided to direct my knowledge, experience and determination,' he said, `toward making sports more honorable for the athletes and fans.' Tom Goldman, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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