Indictment by innuendo

Perhaps we should feel comforted by John Ashcroft's sudden interest in privacy. After all, this is the U.S. Attorney General who has advocated using librarians as spies and was recently brushed back by a federal judge in Chicago who called his attempt to subpoena medical records of 40 hospital abortions a "clear and dangerous" violation of Illinois privacy laws.

At the same time, Ashcroft has done handstands to protect the identities of athletes whose names have surfaced in connection with the BALCO steroid scandal.

Most of BALCO's clients thought they were buying a legal -- maybe a little wacky, but legal -- service. They'd send blood and hair samples to the owner, Victor Conte. He'd send back reports that detailed their mineral deficiencies and suggest supplements. The vast majority never visited his San Francisco lab.

But some did. And starting in the summer of 2002, the feds began watching them closely. The biggest gotcha came a month into le affair steroid, when Barry Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, left BALCO and drove to Pac Bell Park. Agents trailed him as he parked his car by the players entrance, staring at a license plate that read "W8 Guru."

After sifting through Conte's garbage and trailing him through the streets of San Francisco (in a delicious scene, a cop stood inches from the unsuspecting nutritionist while he picked up payments at Western Union), those agents gathered enough evidence to procure two search warrants. One was for Conte's lab. The other was for Anderson's apartment. Among the items they found were:

  • $60,000 in Anderson's safe, some of it broken out into envelopes with what agents claim were the first names of "known athlete clients" written on them.

  • Computer invoices by Anderson listing sales of things like "GH," which the feds allege means growth hormone, and "the clear," reputedly a nickname for the designer steroid THG.

  • Detailed e-mails from Conte to BALCO clients, including one that warns a coach not to give "the clear" to his athletes because drug testers are onto it.

    Confronted by agents during the September 2003 raid at his lab, Conte reportedly broke down and confessed to supplying Anderson with steroids. After investigators reached Anderson's place a few days later, he also cracked.

    As IRS agent Jeff Novitzky wrote: "He admitted that he had given steroids to several professional baseball players whose names I was familiar with from my review of other documents in this investigation."

    Anderson's attorney now disputes the claim.

    You have to hand it to the dumpster divers at the IRS. They left no Hefty unopened. But you also have to ask how an investigation of this caliber -- foreshadowed by the POTUS in his State of the Union and unveiled by the Attorney General in Washington, D.C. -- could end without a single athlete indicted?

    So far, Ashcroft has seemed content to indict by innuendo. And the U.S Attorney in San Francisco, Kevin V. Ryan, couldn't be cuter if he tried. All the references to professional baseball players. All the heavy-handed hints. They're all designed to point in one direction. The biggest name on the indictment is the one that isn't there.

    Pitchers won't pitch to Barry Bonds anymore. Now, apparently, neither will the feds.

    And what about the other clients Anderson is alleged to have supplied? By naming no one -- except Gary Sheffield, whose name was the only one to slip through the redaction process, and is linked to nothing more than sending a package to Conte, perhaps with a hair sample inside -- the feds make suspects out of everyone.

    This is a White House that likes its doors closed. But it's easier to see shadows in the absence of sunlight. Is it so hard to imagine President Bush, acting on behalf of his former brethren in baseball, ordering that no stars be outed? Is it so hard to conceive of a back room deal being struck with the NFL that the buck stops with BALCO? Is it so hard to see all this as a sports version of Dick Cheney's energy task force?

    Ashcroft has promised more indictments. He should be quick, and quick to remove the taint over anyone who doesn't deserve it. These are big boys. Give them something to hit. Don't whiff, Mr. Attorney General.

    Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at shaun.assael@espn3.com.