The following interview with Lance Williams, the co-author of Game of Shadows, and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle can be read, or listened to in entirety as an MP3 file.
Williams talks about how he and Mark Fainaru-Wada started work on Game of Shadows, how the Grand Jury testimony fits into the book and the BALCO investigation, Troy Ellerman, whether "Shield Laws" go far enough in protecting reporters, the MLBPA's attempt to overturn a court ruling that pertains to player records seized from the 2003 Survey Test in MLB, George Mitchell's investigation, Barry Bonds, and much, much more.
This interview is courtesy of Sports Business Radio, and is published by permission.
Sports Business Radio: For those who are not intimately familiar with the book “Game of Shadows” tell us how you and Mark Fainaru-Wada started working on this story - because you are not a sports reporter.
Williams: That’s true. In the fall of 2003 Mark who was a sports reporter, entered the investigative team at our newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. Our boss heard that the IRS had raided what we thought was a vitamin company down by the airport and the Feds would not tell what they were doing and Mark began reporting and learned that it was a steroid investigation and some big names were involved and the biggest name was Barry Bonds. I was brought in several weeks into the effort really just to help Mark on a couple of stories and it just took on a life of its own.
SBR: Its sounds like when you started working on this story you just started uncovering layer after layer. Did you have any idea what you were on to when you first started covering the story?
Williams: Well very quickly through separate sets of sources, both Mark and I heard that there was evidence of Barry Bonds, who is the biggest baseball star in the hereabouts and reigning home run king had used banned drugs and that the Feds were getting evidence of that - and we heard it from such different places that we looked at each other and said, “Wow we might be able to get this in the paper some day.”
SBR: Now you had thousands of documents and hundreds of interviews that you did but then you came across a grand jury transcript. How important was getting that transcript into your newspaper stories and ultimately your book?
Williams: Well, I’ll tell you being able to quote the grand jury testimony was the element that just hammered home the proof of what we were writing. There was sort of reader resistance to these stories in a way, I mean people don’t want to believe bad things about their sports heroes and we had written already that Bonds had used banned drugs of course what the feds were learning, but to be able to quote the athletes words it removed the doubt in the minds of people who were interested in the story. So I thought it was critically important. We would have never had to resort to this if the Federal Government had laid their cards face up on the table, but they did go to great lengths to protect the wealthy athletes names who were caught up in this thing, their names were drawn up in the court files and redacted, but the truth does want to be free and people on all sides of the case wanted to help us because they thought it was wrong to cover for the sports star.
SBR: So, in your opinion Lance, do you think if you had not gotten this Grand Jury transcript, would we still be trying to uncover the names that were part of this case?
Williams: Yes, that is the short answer. The government has still never given an accounting of all that they have learned and Mark and I do believe that they have evidence of activates by other athletes in other sports that they have never done a darn thing about. I am not criticizing them for not prosecuting people, I don’t really care about that, but if you care about cleaning up sports you really do have to expose the cheaters, they have just never taken that responsibility.
SBR: You guys actually met President Bush and he said that you guys were actually doing “a great service”, is I think what he told you. Then why is the government covering this up? Then why are they not naming names and helping you out these people?
Williams: Well there was a disconnect in this case from the get go as we say down home. We thought the President and the former attorney general Ashcroft were sincere about wanting to clean up sports, but the guys on the ground, the guys running the cases were allowed to make key decisions that in my opinion did not help further that goal. And then of course the ultimate irony is after Ashcroft left office and was replaced by Attorney General Gonzalez we wound up getting subpoenaed and ultimately sentenced to prison for those stories and we only got out from that a couple of weeks ago.
SBR: Tell us how you met with Troy Ellerman, because like you said he has now been outed as the leak of Grand Jury testimony, you are now not going to have to go to jail along with your partner Mark, how did you meet Troy in the first place?
Williams: I would like to discuss issues like that with you, but Mark and I still have confidential source relationships and we just cannot talk about anything that would verify or deny that this or that person helped us in a confidential way. It is true that the government has indicted Mr. Ellerman, a defense attorney, and it is true that he has pleaded guilty to some things, but we have never been told that we don’t have to keep our promise to anyone that we have dealt with, we just as much as we would like to, we can’t go into details about any of this and these transactions.
SBR: Let me ask you this, can you tell me because I never quite figured this part out, how was Mr. Ellerman fingered as the source of the leak? Because ultimately, whoever fingered him as the source of the leak, quite frankly, kept you and Mark from going to prison.
Williams: Well we had nothing to do with it, I will tell you that. From what I read in the court papers, Mr. Ellerman was implicated by a former employee who told about him to the FBI and the FBI wired the former employee up and taped Mr. Ellerman saying incriminating things and I think that is how it unfolded.
SBR: When you started publishing these stories and you wrote the “Game of Shadows” and obviously now you have got this Grand Jury testimony in front of you, when you start doing this do you ever think, “Hey, wait a minute, we might go to jail for this because we are not going to give up our source?”
Williams: I suppose there is a hypothetical possibility every time a reporter makes the promise that they are going to have to take it all the way down the line. I am always ready to do that I do not make the promise with out thinking about that, but on the same token, sure I thought that they might come after the sources, but I really never thought that they might drag us into that because in those days, that was 2004 that was not something that the justice department did, they did not routinely subpoena reporters. This attorney general is making a practice of it. Past attorney generals did not, and so perhaps naively I thought it was not going to be a big concern and quite frankly after we met President Bush I really felt like we would not have to go through this process, simply because he personally said that we had done a good job, but go figure.
SBR: Lance are the shield laws for reporters substantial enough?
Williams: They really need a federal law, I mean the state laws are fine and work well, in California we have one and they have one in most states, but at the federal level the reporters are sort of left to the mercy of whoever is the Attorney General and as I say this one has been really aggressive about subpoenaing reporters and its interfering with the public’s access to independent information about the government and that is not a good thing. It’s really not about reporters as much as it is about what voters and citizens learn from sources who can’t be named who aren’t official spokesmen, who have important insights and concepts to convey.
SBR: Major League Baseball's players' association is fighting a federal appeals court's decision to give prosecutors access to the names and urine samples of about 100 players who tested positive for steroids in 2003. We saw a big raid of an online pharmacy this week with some pretty big names on the client list including Gary Matthews Jr. and Evander Holyfield. Don't you agree that outing these players who have cheated is the best way to curb the cheating?
Williams: That is what anybody involved in doping control thinks. That the only way that you get anywhere is publicize the cheating, say who’s doing it and then try and clean it up from that position. And I am afraid that baseball is not done with these kind of crisis. They have not yet gotten a handle on their drug problem and as we have seen that case in Albany, NY and prosecutors around the country are starting to say, “Well heck, I’ll take a steroids case.” Whereas 4 or 5 years ago it was not considered important and now it is and you will be seeing these cases and certainly these athletes who are patronizing these steroid mills are going to get caught up in it.
SBR: It’s funny to look at this George Mitchell investigation which personally, I think is an absolute joke. No one has cooperated with him. He has no power of subpoena. Do you think congress is going to get involved in the situation because they are the only one that has the power to subpoena?
Williams: Well I think Mitchell is frustrated. I would be frustrated too. The players are off limits because of the union, the BALCO witnesses are off limits because of the justice department so he does not really know where to go. So I think he probably will write a report if he does not get more cooperation and invite congress in - and Katy by the door.
SBR: HGH. There is no test for HGH right now, you can have a guy shooting up right before the game and there is nothing to detect it yet its really become the predominant performance enhancing drug of choice. Are the testers going to catch up with the cheaters, or is this something that we are going to have to live with for a long time?
Williams: You know my partner and I differ on this. Mark thinks it is always going to be like this. I hold out hope for scientific advances that could turn the tables on the drug cheats. But right now with the technology that they apply, you can’t catch growth hormone and you can’t catch undetectable steroids. I’ve talked to scientists who are working on totally different approaches to drug testing and if one of those pans out you might be able to identify anyone using a performance enhancing drug or anyone involved in what they call “gene doping”. If in a non-intrusive and emphatic way and if that happened then we would have clean sports in a hurry. Until it happens it’s going to be up to a combination of drug testing and increased police involvement.
SBR: Let’s talk about your favorite guy for a minute, Barry Bonds. They have been chasing him for a long time is he ever going to be indicted?
Williams: You know there is a new United States attorney in San Francisco and he arrived about 2 weeks ago and it will be up to him to pursue the perjury indictment against Bonds. There is ample evidence that Bonds used banned drugs for a period of years, he told the Grand Jury under oath that he hadn’t, at least not knowingly used any. Nobody believes that, but whether they can sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt I suppose that is a legal decision that has to be made. You know they have indicted lesser figures for lying in the BALCO case - a track coach, a bicycle racer. So there ought not to be two sets of standards - you know one for obscure people and one for celebrities.
SBR: If Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s all time home run record, what’s your best guess as to how Bud Selig and MLB will handle that? I am actually looking forward to seeing them squirm.
Williams: I think squirm is right. I would be surprised with what I know; I would be surprised that the Commissioner would actually go to the game if the guy broke the record. I would be surprised if they could get together on the kind of celebration, for example like the one they had when Mark McGwire broke the Marris record in ’98. I just don’t see it. It’s still an achievement, but everyone is viewing it for what it is - one that has occurred in part by cheating. And so it’s just hard to have the big fireworks party with that hanging over it. And he will break the record in San Francisco and the local fans will still cheer and shout, but it just is not what it could have been.
SBR: It’s just sad to me because Peter Magowan, Bud Selig and others have enabled Bonds to be in this position. If they wanted, he could not be in baseball any more.
Williams: You know stepping back, the reason that games have drug problems is not because the players are inherently bad people, but its because its been tolerated and because the drugs work. And these are competitive, ultra competitive people fighting for lucrative jobs and if they think the other guy is cheating, they are going to cheat too and it is up to the people that run the institutions to clean this up.
Listen to the MP3 Podcast of this interview here
The following interview took place on March 3, 2007.