Clemens’ mistrial proves to be common theme in baseball litigation

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Seems you can’t put a baseball star on trial without a mistrial.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens remain perfectly bookended, each with seven major awards, one mistrial and no guilty verdict assured of sticking.

Victor Conte, whose Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative sparked the government investigations of drugs and athletes, has had enough.

“It’s a huge waste of federal taxpayer dollars at this point,” he said Thursday during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t know the tab, but probably tens of millions of dollars at this point.”

Three months and a day after Bonds walked out of a San Francisco court room following a three-week trial and a muddled verdict that could result in a retrial, Clemens hustled out of a Washington, D.C., court room when a judge ruled federal prosecutors botched their case on Day 2, saying they made a mistake unworthy of a “first-year law student.”

As baseball’s gray eminence, Yogi Berra, would say, “it’s like deja vu all over again.”

When facing off against baseball players and their best-in-the-business legal teams, the Justice Department has struggled. Conte, the BALCO president, was sentenced to four months in prison and four months’ home confinement after pleading guilty in 2005 to one count of steroid distribution and one count of money laundering. Bonds was a BALCO client, its most famous.

Conte has two points to make on Clemens.

“Let me just say it’s my opinion and only my opinion that Roger Clemens is guilty,” he offered.

But that doesn’t mean he thinks it should be a criminal matter.

“I believe that there are higher and better tasks than these trophy hunts of trying to take these big-name athletes and make examples of them,” Conte said. “Regardless of whether or not I think he’s guilty or not, we’ve reached a point where enough is enough and it’s time to move on. Back in 2003 or when they brought the case against myself and Barry Bonds, that was a different economic climate than it is today, post 2008.”

When IRS Special Agent Jeff Novitzky, surfing through BALCO’s trash in 2002 or 2003, found a photograph of Conte and Bonds together in the magazine Muscle & Fitness, it sparked a legal pursuit that’s still ongoing.

Like a Rube Goldberg machine, one led to another. The BALCO investigation led to the book “Game of Shadows.” A week after the book was published in March 2006, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig hired former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to investigate steroids.

Mitchell published his report in December 2007, implicating Clemens based on statements from the pitcher’s former trainer, Brian McNamee, who was forced to cooperate by federal agents after he was tied to steroids by former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski. Clemens’ denials over the following week prompted a congressional committee to ask the pitcher and McNamee to testify, leading to a February hearing where Clemens repeated that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs. The hearing was followed by a referral to the Justice Department, a grand jury investigation and an indictment last August.

The federal government charged the seven-time Cy Young Award winner with one count of obstruction of Congress, three counts of making false statements to Congress and two counts of perjury. Now, the government faces a Sept. 2 hearing when it likely will try to persuade U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton to allow a retrial.

Across the country, a different set of prosecutors face an Aug. 26 hearing when Bonds’ lawyers will argue that U.S. District Judge Susan Illston should throw out the one conviction against the seven-time Most Valuable Player — that he obstructed justice when he gave an evasive answer to a grand jury in December 2003.

Bonds’ prosecutors haven’t decided whether to retry the three hung counts. The jury couldn’t come to a unanimous verdict on charges he made false statements when he denied using steroids and human growth hormone and said he allowed only doctors to inject him. But it convicted him of giving an evasive statement when asked whether his trainer, Greg Anderson, ever gave him “anything that required a syringe to inject yourself with?”

Bonds’ rambling reply stated that “I became a celebrity child with a famous father.” His lawyers argue that he can’t be convicted of that, partly because moments later he was asked “Did either Mr. Anderson or Mr. Conte ever give you a liquid that they told you to inject into yourself” and Bonds responded with a simple: “No.”

Just before closing arguments, one of Bonds’ lawyers, Dennis Riordan, addressed the possibility of a conviction on the allegedly evasive statements contained in the jury instructions, saying it “would be utterly a farce.”

In the view of Conte, prosecutions of baseball stars has become pointless.

“I just think it’s time for those that make these types of decisions to make a higher and better use of federal taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Walton also had the economics on his mind.

“We’ve expended a lot of your taxpayer’s money to reach this point,” he told the jurors before sending them home. Derek Jeter, like many, is tired of the wrangling with no end.

“I’m no legal expert but you want it to be behind him,” he said. “Obviously, the more attention that’s paid to that, it’s just negative for the game in general.”