Balco Scandal Source to Plead Guilty

Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters may no longer face jail time for failing to reveal the name of a confidential source. The source, who provided sealed grand jury transcripts to the reporters, has admitted his leak in court documents.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A lawyer in the steroid case involving baseball stars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi could be going to jail himself. Troy Ellerman has admitted giving information about his clients to two San Francisco Chronicle reporters. They broke the so-called BALCO steroid story, and they had faced jail time themselves for refusing to reveal their source.

Now it appears they are off the hook. Here is one of the reporters, Lance Williams, from an earlier interview with NPR.

Mr. LANCE WILLIAMS (Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle)): We're not out there to enforce secrecy regulations imposed by governments or business or anyone. That's their lookout that's not our game. Our game is to find out as much truth as we can and print it as a—directly as we can.

BRAND: That's Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle. Here to talk about the case is NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik. Hi David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey, how you doing Madeleine.

BRAND: Fine thank you. Well, remind us quickly about BALCO. What were the issues involved and why were these reporters under subpoena?

FOLKENFLIK: Well as you may remember, BALCO was this athletic supplement clinic based south of San Francisco. There was a big raid in late 2003 that lead to federal indictments in early 2004 announced by the attorney general himself, John Ashcroft. One of the striking thing about it was that they named a lot of— the four people involved in distributing these drugs but didn't name any of the professional athletes who they said had been purchasing and consuming these illegal substances. That struck a lot of people as wrong. It soon lead to speculation, given the links the clinic had to others, to prominent athletes, baseball, NFL players, Olympic sprinters - that prominent athletes were involved.

And indeed Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of "San Francisco Chronicle" later reported some of the people who had testified, including these big names like San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds and New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi these guys ultimately were — their actually grand jury testimony which had been under seal was reported by the "Chronicle" the judge and federal prosecutors demanded that be investigated.

BRAND: So now it appears that the lawyer, Troy Ellerman for BALCO let them look at these grand jury recordings; secret testimony. Why would he do that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well there was a lot of feeling at the time that this was the inversion of justice. That is that in a typical drug case prosecutors like to use—you know the consumers to get at the dealers, the drug kingpins. In this case the suppliers were in some ways the little guys. The guys making millions and millions of dollars in contracts and endorsements were the big athletes but the justice department was not naming them even though, regardless of their—how they were regulated by their sports they were certainly illegal under federal law. So you know people like Victor Conte the flamboyant founder of BALCO for whom Ellerman served as lawyer for a while felt it was very unfair that he was being singled out and that these athletes were not.

BRAND: Hmm. And so Ellerman, why did he admit now that he showed the reporters this testimony?

FOLKENFLIK: Well late last year a guy came forward - a fired former investigator for Ellerman and the defense team - came forward to the feds and to actually a reporter for Yahoo News to say that Ellerman had indeed supplied this information. Ellerman had been confronted by federal investigators according to court papers recently filed this week, and it was clear that he'd be facing some heavy duty prosecution if he didn't reach a plea agreement -which is what he did.

BRAND: And throughout it all the reporters refused to identify him as their source. Are they now completely off the hook?

FOLKENFLIK: They are indeed. They, they persevered in their stand. Unlike reporters say, back East here, with be trial of the Vice President's former chief of staff. They said they would not reveal their secret sources.

BRAND: Well—are there any similarities between those two cases?

FOLKENFLIK: The similarity is that the federal government gets pretty much what it wants when it wants it. The difference is that in this case the journalists held firm.

BRAND: David Folkenflik is NPR's Media Correspondent. Thank you David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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