Jones facing 'character assassination,' says lawyer

Updated: April 26, 2004, 1:13 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

SAN FRANCISCO -- An attorney for Marion Jones rejected reports the Olympic track star received steroids from a California nutritionist, portraying Jones as "a target of character assassination by unknown and often unreliable sources."

Two newspapers, both quoting sources who requested anonymity, reported Sunday that nutritionist Victor Conte told federal agents he gave performance-enhancing substances to Jones, fellow track star Tim Montgomery and other top athletes.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Conte, who faces federal charges for his alleged distribution of steroids to pro athletes, told federal investigators that Jones and Montgomery received the drugs in exchange for endorsements of his ZMA nutritional supplement.

"The San Francisco Chronicle story is wrong," said Jones' lawyer, Joseph Burton, in a statement released Sunday. "Victor Conte is either lying or the statement was involuntarily coerced."

The San Jose Mercury News, citing a report prepared by federal agents, said the document claims Conte told the agents of 27 athletes -- including Jones, Montgomery and baseball players Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield -- that he allegedly supplied with steroids.

Burton said that because the sources in the stories are unnamed, "[I]t is impossible to comment on the assertions made or, more importantly, for anyone to judge their reliability or credibility.

"To have Ms. Jones' reputation and character assassinated in this way is unfair."

Burton said in an interview Sunday that the five-time medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics never received steroids from Conte and never had an endorsement deal of any kind with Conte or any of his businesses.

"Marion Jones' relationship with Victor Conte was a limited one," Burton said in a statement. "Mr. Conte has never been her nutritionist."

Burton added, "Any alleged assertion, or reported assertion, by Conte is false."

Conte is the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, the supplements firm at the center of the steroids scandal, as well as a sister company -- Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning, or SNAC -- that markets the legal zinc-magnesium supplement ZMA.

Jones, Montgomery and Bonds are among the athletes listed, as of Sunday, on a SNAC Web site as having "incorporated SNAC supplements into their training and competition regimens."

Burton said Jones has used ZMA, which is prevalent on the track and field circuit, but that she bought it at a nutritional supplements store and not from Conte, BALCO or SNAC.

Troy Ellerman, an attorney who has spoken for Conte throughout the case, said in an interview Sunday that there was "never a deal" between Conte and either Jones or Montgomery and that Conte never supplied the two with steroids.

Conte said in an e-mail message late Saturday night that he couldn't comment on the reports.

Jones and Montgomery, both of whom testified last fall before a federal grand jury that indicted Conte and three other men, repeatedly have denied steroid use. So have Bonds, Giambi and Sheffield, all of whom also testified before the grand jury.

Conte and the other three men indicted in the BALCO case have pleaded innocent.

Jones won an unprecedented five track medals -- three of them gold -- at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Her boyfriend, Montgomery, holds the world record of 9.78 seconds in the 100 meters.

Jones and Montgomery have much more to lose than Bonds and other major leaguers if they indeed did receive steroids from Conte -- or in Bonds' case, from personal trainer Greg Anderson, as the Chronicle has reported.

Prosecution of steroid users by federal authorities is unprecedented, so it's unlikely any athlete will face charges for taking the banned substances -- unless they lied about it to a grand jury, leading to possible perjury charges.

Since steroids were not banned by the major leagues until this season, Bonds faces no suspension or other severe consequences -- other than further damage to his reputation and perhaps an asterisk next to his home run records.

But Jones and Montgomery could be suspended and lose their chance to compete at this summer's Athens Olympics if they admitted to steroid use -- even if they never failed a drug test, and even if they did not know they were taking banned substances.

Under track and field's doctrine of strict accountability, an athlete is responsible for what is in his body, no matter how it got there.

And Section 9 of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's protocol gives that agency the authority to bring a drug case against an athlete in lieu of a positive drug test "when USADA has other reason to believe that a potential doping violation has occurred, such as admitted doping."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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