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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Updated: February 13, 3:01 PM ET
This Just In

By Jon Pessah

On March 2, the Barry Bonds trial will begin, and a jury will decide if he lied under oath about using steroids. But the trial really isn't about Bonds—most of us decided long ago what to think of the home run king. No, this trial is about federal agent Jeff Novitzky (above, left), who has spent seven years and millions of dollars dragging Bonds to court. It's also about whether we want the government policing sports.

Until September 2003, Novitzky was an anonymous IRS special agent working drug and fraud crimes in Silicon Valley. Then his investigation into BALCO blew the lid off steroids. Soon he had the backing of Congress, President Bush—who included steroids in a State of the Union—and the U.S. attorney general, who announced the BALCO indictment on national TV. That's a lot of clout for an IRS agent. Maybe too much.

That's certainly how it looked in 2004 when Novitzky raided Comprehensive Drug Testing, the nation's largest sports-drug testing company. What happened on that day is complicated but boils down to this: Novitzky walked into CDT with 11 armed agents and a search warrant for the confidential test results of 10 baseball players with ties to BALCO. Hours later, he walked out with more than 4,000 medical files, including those of every major league baseball player, a bunch of NFL and NHL pros, and workers from three businesses. Maybe one that employs you. THAT'S A LOT OF CLOUT FOR AN IRS AGENT.

Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky's actions a "callous disregard" for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence, reviewed the results and received clearance from an appeals court to pursue 103 MLB players who, those records revealed, had tested positive for steroids. (That investigation is pending another appeals court decision, expected this fall.)

An IRS watchdog unit has found cause to question the agent's methods too. One of Novitzky's handpicked subordinates said his boss talked openly about cashing in on the BALCO investigation with a book deal. Novitzky told the watchdogs he had spoken of a deal, but only in jest, admitting his words "might have been misconstrued." He was also asked about leaks in his investigation, the most damning of which was a record of his interrogation of BALCO founder Victor Conte. In it, Novitzky wrote that Conte admitted to giving Bonds steroids. Conte denied the report, but the story all but convicted Bonds in the court of public opinion long before he could be tried in a court of law. Novitzky denied he was the source of any leaks. Then there was the missing evidence: $600 of the $63,920 confiscated in the raid on the home of Greg Anderson, Bonds' former trainer. Novitzky couldn't account for the missing cash, but a 150-page report from the IRS watchdogs cleared him of any wrongdoing in regard to the money and other accusations. Nevertheless, former high-ranking Justice Department officials say the missing evidence could blow Novitzky's credibility in the Bonds perjury trial.

That's the thing about running a very high-profile, very expensive federal investigation: You're supposed to be both careful and judicious with your power. On too many occasions over the past seven years, the man leading the government's steroids probe was neither. Case in point: After Anderson served three months in jail for dealing steroids and money laundering, Novitzky and the feds put him back in for 13 more for refusing to testify against Bonds. They also waited three years to return $41,420 of the seized $63,920, violating Anderson's plea agreement. And most recently, they opened tax investigations on his wife and mother-in-law, neither of whom has anything to do with Bonds, to force the trainer to testify.

No matter what you think of Novitzky's tactics, he has changed the landscape. Keeping sports clean was once a confidential matter, overseen by scientists with test tubes. Novitzky has ushered in an era of stiffer laws in which the feds run point; in which suspect athletes now face armed raids and tapped phone lines; in which Congress pours millions of dollars into the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a quasi-governmental outfit that uses aggressive tactics to go after amateurs it suspects of using steroids.

Now the Novitzky era reaches a climax with the March 2 trial. Whatever the verdict, Bonds' reputation has been ruined. And since U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and President Obama have said leagues—not governments—should police steroids, Novitzky's crusade will likely end. And that leaves a question for the rest of us to ask: Was it really worth it?