Commentary

Novitzky's Tammy Thomas testimony is no clue to Bonds case

Originally Published: March 31, 2008
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the corner of the sporting world now shaped by the BALCO scandal -- a corner filled with designer steroids and human growth hormone, doping calendars and urine tests, home runs and world records -- the perjury case of a former elite cyclist named Tammy Thomas was supposed to offer insights into bigger things.

Thomas hasn't generated much interest as a figure ensnared in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative saga, perhaps because of the general lack of attention given to elite cycling in the United States. But she is the first athlete to go to trial in connection with BALCO, so her case has provided intrigue and perspective.

Most notably, it promised a formal public introduction to Jeff Novitzky, the government official who has become the unlikely face of the so-called steroids era, the IRS special agent who not only sparked the probe but has driven it to the point that it has laid bare some of the world's greatest athletes as drug cheats.

[+] EnlargeJeff Novitzky
AP Photo/Susan WalshIRS agent Jeff Novitzky went to Capitol Hill in Washington in February for a congressional hearing on drug use in baseball. On Monday, he was cross-examined in San Francisco in the Tammy Thomas perjury trial.
For nearly six years, Novitzky has worked with a series of alphabet-soup governmental and Olympic agencies (FBI, DEA, FDA, USADA, WADA) on a case that has shaken the foundations of sport. But until the Thomas case, he had never been heard from, an elusive figure who has become a hero to anti-doping advocates but the subject of much derision from figures caught up in the BALCO probe.

Among Novitzky's most notable and vocal critics has been Michael Rains, a defense lawyer for Barry Bonds who has suggested repeatedly that the government in general and Novitkzy in particular were out to get his client. In November, Bonds was indicted on four counts of lying to the BALCO grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice. After a recent ruling that the indictment was flawed, the government is expected to issue new charges soon.

And so there was some thought that the Thomas trial, with Novitkzy testifying for the first time in open court, would presage the Bonds case and offer a glimpse of the kind of attack to his credibility the IRS agent might face if Bonds goes to trial.

However, after five hours of cross-examination from Thomas's attorney Monday, there seemed to be little in Novitzky's testimony that would shed significant light on the Bonds case. The facts of the two cases are clearly different. Thomas' defense is rooted in questions about whether the drugs she was taking were actually steroids, whether she received them from this person or that person, and whether her testimony was even relevant to the case.

Novitzky's testimony, which began Thursday, lured a larger-than-normal media contingent. Lawyers who are part of Bonds' defense team have been in the courtroom to watch, as has a lawyer for track coach Trevor Graham, who also faces perjury-related charges. But for the most part, questions about Novitzky's credibility and possible overreaching have not arisen.

And Monday was viewed as a decisive day, the chance presumably to hear him confronted with the string of sometimes veiled, sometimes overt criticisms that have tailed him almost since the BALCO investigation became public in September 2003.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
Noel Vasquez/Getty ImagesBarry Bonds might have an interest in the testimony in the Tammy Thomas trial, but what Bonds' lawyers heard from Jeff Novitzky on Monday didn't help much.
Rains repeatedly has characterized the entire BALCO probe as little more than "the government vs. Barry Bonds," and he has made veiled public suggestions of government misconduct by Novitzky.

In an article published in Playboy in 2004, a former state narcotics agent alleged that Novitzky was out to get Bonds and had even discussed a possible book deal related to his probe. Novitzky denied those accusations in court papers.

A lawyer for personal trainer Greg Anderson, one of five men who ultimately pleaded guilty in the BALCO conspiracy case, described Novitzky as a failed athlete who was merely out to make a name for himself by taking down big-time athletes such as Bonds. Others have suggested he is a zealot who has overstepped his role as government agent by inducing witnesses to cooperate with Sen. George Mitchell's steroids probe on behalf of Major League Baseball.

Victor Conte, the nutritionist who founded BALCO, has claimed that Novitzky misrepresented statements Conte made to the agent on the day of the raids, insisting he never gave up the names of 27 athletes identified in a document written by Novitzky to reflect an extensive interview.

And most recently, Roger Clemens' lawyer, Rusty Hardin, called Novitzky's plan to attend a congressional hearing as "brazen" and "unbelievable," telling The New York Times: "You know what? He does not have a sacred mission from God to mess up everybody's life. I can tell you this: If he messes with Roger, Roger will eat his lunch."

However, virtually none of these issues were broached Monday in the Thomas case. During cross-examination, the closest Thomas' lawyer, Ethan Balogh, came to touching on any of these topics was to imply that, by seeking cooperation from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Novitzky was more concerned with loftier goals such as cleaning up sport than with his assigned task of rooting out money laundering and illicit drug dealing.

"Your goal was not to investigate violations of the rules of sport?" Balogh asked.

"Correct," Novitzky replied.

"Your goal was not to clean up the record books that may have been achieved by untoward means?"

"Correct."

"Your goal wasn't to take away medals obtained by violating rules of sport?"

"Correct."

[+] EnlargeTammy Thomas
AP Photo/Noah BergerFormer Olympic cyclist Tammy Thomas, charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, talked on her cell phone as she left the federal courthouse in San Francisco last week.

Back in August 2002, the BALCO probe was launched, formally, by the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations Unit (IRS-CI). Really, though, it was launched by Novitkzy himself, according to his recent testimony.

A native of the Bay Area who grew up not far from Conte's BALCO offices in Burlingame, Calif., Novitzky testified that he heard about Conte as far back as the 1980s, when a newspaper article credited the BALCO chief with helping four track and field strength athletes in their efforts to attain Olympic glory.

Novitzky, a former college high jumper and basketball player, said he was told sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s that Conte had started a new phase in his work with elite athletes.

"I did hear, particularly from a couple sources -- friends, coaches, athletes, family -- that Victor Conte had moved on from nutritional supplement-type business to actually providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs," Novitkzy testified last week.

In 2002, after conducting a financial check on BALCO, the investigation began in earnest based on anonymous tips suggesting that Conte and Anderson were distributing illegal performance-enhancing drugs to elite athletes, according to court records. The IRS-CI took the lead because of potential money-laundering violations.

Novitzky, in tandem with additional IRS-CI agents and members of the San Mateo County Drug Task Force, was the lead investigator, and court records have revealed him to be a dogged, if not single-minded, force in the probe. The documents reflect a man regularly digging through BALCO's trash on rainy, cold Monday evenings in 2002 and 2003 and sifting through additional evidence at a foul-smelling medical waste facility.

Novitzky testified in the Thomas case about both of those tasks, describing how he took "the thickest gloves he could find" to examine the waste.

It was Novitzky who led the raids on BALCO on Sept. 3, 2003. Since then he has become an almost Zelig-like figure:

Dec. 4, 2003 -- The 6-foot-7, wiry, balding agent escorted Bonds into the San Francisco Federal Courthouse, where the Giants slugger provided the now-infamous grand jury testimony that ultimately led to perjury charges.

Feb. 18, 2004 -- One week after Conte, Anderson and two other men were indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute steroids, Novitzky was present at a San Francisco news conference touting the charges and detailing additional elements of the probe.

March 17, 2005 -- Novitzky sat in the gallery at the congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball, where Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger at politicians and Mark McGwire insisted he won't talk about the past.

Oct. 5, 2007 -- Novitzky watched as Marion Jones pleaded guilty in a New York courtroom to two counts of lying to federal agents -- one of whom was Novitzky himself.

Dec. 7, 2007 -- Novitzky was in the courtroom as Bonds made his first appearance in the wake of being indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Feb. 14, 2008 -- Novitzky was back in the gallery on Capitol Hill, where the same committee heard the tales of Clemens and trainer Brian McNamee, then called for a probe into whether Clemens lied under oath. Novitzky is part of that investigation.

Until now, though, Novitzky had been silent. The issue of his credibility is still likely to be attacked at some point; but as soon as the Thomas trial finishes, Novitzky likely will return to his role as the quiet investigator … at least until the next trial, whether it's Graham's or Bonds'.

Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of "Game of Shadows," is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.