Former BALCO head discusses life in prison

SAN FRANCISCO -- The head of the BALCO lab, behind bars for his central role in a global sports steroid scandal, has told Reuters that he has organized a prison track team and debated with fellow inmates about steroids.

Victor Conte is finishing a four-month prison sentence for distributing steroids in a scandal that has tarnished the reputation of top athletes, including baseball slugger Barry Bonds and track and field star Marion Jones.

Conte contacted Reuters in a letter that was received on Wednesday, the day before a new book goes on sale claiming all-time season home run-holder Bonds knowingly used BALCO steroids to boost his power.

In the two-page handwritten letter dated Monday, Conte described his life at Taft Camp, a low-security California facility holding 400 to 450 men, which has dorm rooms each housing about 50 people.

"I do not mean to downplay the consequences of my actions, but I have done my best to make the best of my time here at the Taft Camp," he said. "I have been participating in the toastmaster's club,
including being a part of a steroid debate which my team won."

A former bass guitarist who later switched careers and opened the BALCO lab, Conte used a gregarious personality and self-taught knowledge of nutrition to gain access to some of the top names in track and field, baseball and football.

According to his letter, Conte was involved in activities from both of his previous careers at Taft, a federal prison run by the GEO Group, a publicly traded company.

"I have also been giving inmates music lessons on both the bass and guitar," he said. "In addition, I have assembled a track team and have been teaching some of the inmates how to sprint.

"We recently had some 70-yard races and my team members did great," he said.

Edward Ochoa, an executive at Taft, confirmed the facility has a toastmaster club, track area and music room with basses and guitars.

Conte had nothing positive to say about the new book "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports," saying a published excerpt by the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters "contains outright lies".

"Much of the information prepared by federal agents regarding what I said on the day of the BALCO raid was completely fabricated," he wrote.

He referred to reports filed in his case which said he told investigators names of his clients, including Bonds, the San Francisco Giant who is six home runs away from Babe Ruth for second place in lifetime home runs.

"These two reporters have routinely been recipients of illegally leaked BALCO documents and other highly questionable information and evidence from the government," said Conte, who is scheduled to be released on March 30.

Authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams say their book is based on legal documents, grand jury testimony, interviews and other information.

"In my opinion, federal investigators and prosecutors, news reporters and others with a self-serving agenda have done the exact same thing that they are accusing the athletes of doing, which is cheating to win," he said.

Gotham Books, publisher of the new book, say they have boosted the print run from 50,000 to 248,000 in reaction to strong public interest since "Sports Illustrated" published excerpts two weeks ago.

Bonds, who has denied knowingly taking steroids and has never failed a drug test, has 708 career home runs and needs just six more this season to tie Babe Ruth (714) for second place on the list. Hank Aaron reigns supreme with 755.

Former Olympic sprint champion Jones settled out of court with Conte in February after she sued him in 2004 for claiming to have supplied her with banned performance-enhancing drugs. Jones denied the charge and has never failed a doping test.