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The BALCO blueprint?

Times Staff Writer

When the trial of former elite cyclist Tammy Thomas, accused of lying to a grand jury, begins Monday in a San Francisco federal courtroom, plenty of athletes and their lawyers will be watching.

Thomas’ case is the first related to the BALCO doping investigation to be brought before a jury.

Thus it’s no accident that among the spectators at a pretrial hearing earlier this year was an attorney for slugger Barry Bonds, who also is accused of giving false testimony to the BALCO grand jury. Bonds has pleaded not guilty to five charges related to the case. On Friday his trial was put on hold for three months.

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Attorneys for Bonds and other potential BALCO defendants may be hoping that Thomas’ trial will provide them clues about how government prosecutors will present their evidence in future jury trials.

“The government is going to be required to lay its cards on the table, face-up,” says Edward G. Williams, a New York attorney who has represented athletes in BALCO-related cases in the past.

Burlingame’s Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, plied its athlete-clients with performance-enhancing substances for years before it came under investigation in 2003. The firm’s founder, Victor Conte, later pleaded guilty to federal charges related to its operation.

He is among 11 people who have been charged in connection with BALCO’s activities, which included dosing athletes with steroids that were undetectable by tests then in use.

All previous cases have ended in plea deals; in the highest-profile case, Olympic track star Marion Jones pleaded guilty to lying about her use of performance-enhancing substances to federal agents investigating BALCO. She was sentenced to six months in prison on that charge and other counts. At least 15 world-class or Olympic athletes connected to BALCO have been sanctioned by sports authorities for doping.

It isn’t clear how much new hard information about the BALCO investigation will come out during Thomas’ trial; a great deal already has been aired in court proceedings or published in newspaper or book form. Instead, interest probably will focus on a key government witness: Jeff Novitzky, an IRS agent who spearheaded the BALCO probe.

Although Novitzky has been intimately involved in subsequent investigations, he has never testified or been cross-examined in public. Consequently, lawyers who may have to face him in court are eager to take his measure.

“They can evaluate his demeanor, the strength of his testimony on direct, how he stands up on cross-examination,” Williams said. “Is he confident? Is he believable?”

One thing already is clear about the government’s approach: It’s hardball. Ethan Balogh, Thomas’ San Francisco lawyer, charged earlier this month that the prosecution had deliberately timed the disclosure of details of his client’s medical record in order to sway potential jurors against her and to feed newspapers timely material.

In its pretrial brief, the prosecution revealed that a Colorado doctor who examined Thomas in 2000 found that her beard had grown in so heavily that she had to shave it and that her voice had lowered to the male range. These were side effects of steroid use, and some would recede once Thomas ceased taking the substances, the doctor advised.

“Whether or not your voice will return to normal is unclear,” the doctor said, according to the memorandum.

The disclosures “sought to embarrass, to shame, and to beat up on a little person,” Balogh maintained; he noted that the disclosures of the doctor’s findings had been made while the defense and prosecution were still discussing their relevance with the judge. Federal Judge Susan Illston, who is presiding at the trial, later ruled the evidence admissible.

Thomas, 37, has long been a poster child for steroid use in cycling. A leading short-track sprinter, she was first charged with doping in 2000. Cycling and Olympic officials said that a series of tests had found elevated ratios of testosterone to epitestosterone in her urine, which is generally taken as a sign of testosterone abuse. She settled that case by accepting a one-year suspension from racing and agreeing not to compete in the Sydney Olympics.

In 2002, a random urine test came up positive for the steroid norbolethone, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. USADA imposed a lifetime suspension, the penalty for a second drug offense. An appeals panel upheld the sanction.

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michael.hiltzik@latimes.com


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