- Some highlights from this interview
- The importance of grand jury testimony in reporting the BALCO story
- Why he didn't expect to be subpoenaed
- Praise from President Bush
- The impact of the BALCO stories
Williams is an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and the author, with Mark Fainaru-Wada, of the paper's stories on steroids and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO. Williams and Fainaru-Wada also co-wrote the book Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports (2006). A key source for their articles was the athletes' leaked grand jury testimony; Fainaru-Wada and Williams faced jail time for refusing to reveal their sources until the leaker, defense attorney Troy Ellerman, came forward on Feb. 14, 2007. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Aug. 26, 2006.
What is BALCO?
It's the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, based down by the San Francisco Airport. Its legitimate business was to sell nutritional supplements, but as we learned from our reporting, the actual business was to sell designer steroids to elite athletes; at least that was a sideline of the proprietor down there, Victor Conte. He would often provide the designer steroids to the elite athletes gratis; in exchange, they would endorse the legal products he sold. That's the way they were doing business there.
So you expected that, since you [knew] the rumor was that [San Francisco Giants'] Barry Bonds was the target, ... that this was all going to get laid out for you?
Oh, sure, and it was more than rumor. We interviewed [a person] ... with direct knowledge of what was going on down there. He said the athletes -- not just Bonds, but there were about 30 of them that went before the grand jury -- they were all customers using the designer steroids, and that was what the case was about. ... I never expected to see court filings in which transactions of the type they were talking about had all those names cut out. I thought we'd see it.
Well, it's an element of the crime for one thing, and it's a routine practice in courts. Usually, whether you're charging [someone] or not, you'll lay out the names of the other people involved; it's just part of the facts that they were asserting. ... It's all anyone cared about, and for the people interested in controlling doping in sports, [to redact the names was] completely wrongheaded, according to them. If you want to clean up a sport, you have to expose the cheaters. That's the whole basis of doping control.
But if you look at it as a drug case, these were just consumers.
True. If this were a crack gang, those would be the guys on the corner paying 10 bucks for the crack. And who cares who they are? But that just wasn't the dynamic here. The elite athletes, really their demand for the drugs shaped the direction of the conspiracy. ...
“If they can get a subpoena sustained in a case about sports doping, they're going to get one anytime that they want. And I think we're going to see this as a routine matter among reporters trying to cover the federal government.”
So this was a celebrity crime story?
I guess so. To the extent it was a crime story at all, it was about celebrity crime. To us, it was a story about cheating in sports, too. We had not only the home run king, but the sweetheart of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 [track star Marion Jones]; we had the world's fastest man [Tim Montgomery]; we had one of the best NFL linebackers ever [Bill Romanowski]. These are great athletes, and to learn that they had attained their prowess through illegitimate means was significant. ... [The] government was countenancing [it] by sealing up those court records as they did and redacting the names. They were enabling these guys to come out and lie about what they were doing, even after admitting it.
So you saw your job as?
Tell the truth, ventilate the truth, describe the actual dynamics of the steroids conspiracy, which was a big deal for elite sport in our country at the time. ...
Now, by background, you're not a sports reporter? ...
Sure, I'm not a sports reporter. I've never written about sports. I'm kind of a second-deck baseball fan and so forth. But my partner, Mark Fainaru-Wada, is a sportswriter. He was the first reporter in for our paper, the [San Francisco] Chronicle. ... Originally, we had a federal raid on a vitamin company down by the airport, and the feds wouldn't tell anybody what they were doing down there. ... Mark worked for about three weeks, and I was brought in because the story was getting bigger, and there were more angles to chase. ... I have background in courts and legal matters.
And when you took a look at it, what did it look like to you from that perspective?
As a drug case, unlike any I'd ever covered because of the way it was being conducted by the feds. They weren't running it like you'd expect to run an investigation. There were so many quirks to it. You start with the fact that the steroids themselves are such a lightweight offense under the federal laws, and yet they had gone just big time after these guys. In the end, the lead dope dealers got four months in prison, and that was all they thought they could get on a 42-count indictment. So it was just an unusual case in that regard.
The government was interested. The president of the United States was interested -- remember, he mentioned it in his State of the Union address -- and they got indictments in the case. Attorney General [John] Ashcroft announced the indictments on national TV. So at the highest level, there was interest in steroids control that was being manifested.
But I always thought there was always a little disconnect between that policy-level interest and what was going on at the ground level by the U.S. attorney in San Francisco. ... The prosecutors in San Francisco decided to protect the privacy of the athletes, and that seemed unusual to me. ...
Why do you think they went that way?
Well, I have to speculate that it had to do with an impulse to protect wealthy celebrities. That seemed to be what it got down to. ... After the indictments, the U.S. attorney, Mr. [Kevin] Ryan, was asked about this: Why didn't you put out the names of the athletes? And he said, "It's our policy not to do so because they weren't indicted." But if you look at the affidavit in the case, there's three pages of narrative about some bodybuilder [who is] named; he's never charged with a crime, but they spend about three pages of a 50-page document describing in detail allegations of dope dealing and other misconduct on his part. There's no privacy issue there. So you wonder why the privacy issue did exist for the athletes whose names were all removed from the documents. ...
But it could have also damaged professional sports. Baseball, football -- these are multibillion-dollar industries.
It might damage their economic prospects in the short term, but I think cleaning up those sports ... is really important for the sports themselves, and they at least say they believe that, too.
The grand jury transcripts made really important newspaper stories and helped quite a bit with the narrative of the book. The importance of the grand jury information was that it was persuasive to people. Citing them, it convinced leaders and policymakers that what we were describing was true. One had [New York Yankees'] Jason Giambi's own words admitting he was using banned drugs. This is one of the guys that denied it publicly after he testified privately he was using banned drugs. ...
If you'd written a story [in which] three unnamed sources say that Jason Giambi used steroids, that would be so easily dismissed by Giambi, his handlers, everyone. It just wouldn't have the credibility that a sourced document of the kind that we're talking about did. ...
And I suppose the legal question would be, how did you know that the grand jury transcript you came across was actually the grand jury transcript?
From the sources and from the material as it presented itself, ... there was no question in our mind that it was absolutely as advertised. The sources had reason to know what it was. And then the content of it was absolutely persuasive; it lined up with everything else we knew and had reported and had seen. ...
When you got the grand jury transcript, did you think to yourself, ... this is secret material?
No. I first evaluated it as a prospective news story and thought it was extremely compelling material -- had to find a way to get it in the paper, just had to. What kind of reporter would you be if you didn't try to get this in the paper? Because it was so absolutely on point [with] the stories we were trying to write. It proved things we knew and hadn't been able to report. ... So I think we looked at it as a story, first and last.
I presumed that the government would not be pleased to see it published, and I thought there was a possibility they would try to look for the source. I certainly thought about that.
I didn't believe this would get us subpoenaed, because I was generally aware of the Justice Department guidelines then in place. And I just didn't think we were going to get to the level of what they call "exigent circumstances" on this. ...
Exigent circumstances? What do you mean?
It's one of the elements that [the Department of] Justice used to consider when it thought about issuing a subpoena against a reporter. Let's say a reporter is about to write a story that would betray troop movements at a time of war; that would be an exigent circumstance. ... We just didn't think a sports story about steroids, that they would feel a subpoena was justified. ...
Let me understand: The grand jury part [of the] record that you published, you originally published in the newspaper?
Yeah. We published it in December of 2004. That was a year after the testimony had been taken. We had the earlier story in June of '04 on the track stars' testimony, but those stories were done in 2004 for the Chronicle.
And then you decided to write a book?
We did. We got an opportunity to write a book about the BALCO case and did rely on the grand jury testimony for portions of that book as well.
And it was syndicated in Sports Illustrated?
That's true. Sports Illustrated excerpted our book. It was published in the magazine in March of 2006, a couple of weeks before the book came out. It had a resonator effect; much of the information had been out there in the Chronicle a year before, but there was something about maybe the repetition of it in Sports Illustrated and in the book. It reached a different audience; the East Coast and Midwestern folks really hadn't had a chance to read our stuff as we had written it. ...
Then we did start seeing some of the reaction from officialdom. We did see, for instance, baseball launching an investigation of the steroid era. ... We saw congressional hearings and so forth, and a lot of interest from the book being published.
[Do you think] the resonating effect ... generated the subpoena?
We talk about that among ourselves, whether the publication of the book and the Sports Illustrated material refocused their interest in us. We know that in 2005, they had served a search warrant on Victor Conte's home, who was the head man at BALCO, looking for evidence of leaked material to us. But we hadn't heard about much activity at all after that. Then, once the book came out, the subpoena effort did seem to crank back up, and we finally were subpoenaed in May. That's a couple of months after the book came out.
What is the penalty for leaking grand jury testimony?
Well, I'm not sure. In our case, we've argued that the penalty is a violation of a protective order. ... I think that was the arrangement they had when those transcripts were passed out to everyone; they signed protective orders and agreed that if they mishandled them, they could be held in contempt of court.
The government has said that they've committed a terrible crime, is what Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales said, and they suggested that they might want to go after the sources for perjury, I guess on the basis that many people who had access to the transcripts later filed declarations with the Court saying they had not leaked them. ... I guess if the sources were from the government, there's [an] additional penalty for mishandling the documents that could come into play.
So you're not sure what kind of retribution you're protecting your source or your sources from?
Well, I know they want to get the guys. And these are people who helped us write important stories, really newsworthy stories that actually have had done some good, we think. ... We just can't let them go after the sources and punish them for helping us do something we think is actually a good thing.
What were you doing the day you heard about the subpoena?
My son goes to college in Oregon, and I was driving up there to bring him home from his freshman year. I was just up on I-5 in the middle of Oregon and got a cell phone call, and pulled off at a highway rest stop and talked to [Chronicle editor] Phil Bronstein, my boss.
Do you go, "What is this?"
I was really sorry it had come to that, because I knew how much grief was in store, really, for my paper. The cost and the effort of defending one of these things is nothing to be sneezed at. And also for myself, I love reporting so much, I love doing stories, and I knew I was going be tied down in this thing for a while. ... But [if] you're asking did I regret what I'd done, I can't say I did. I'm proud of our work. ...
Had you ever thought before you might go to jail on a story?
I'm a very pragmatic person; I always knew it was a possibility. ... But really, it's been so rare in our business that I didn't think it was a realistic possibility at all, even doing investigative reporting.
Were you naive?
I think the rules changed. I think I understood the risks as they existed at the time we did the story pretty well. ... But what's going on with our case is just part of an overall sea change in relations between Justice and the press. They are seeking subpoenas and going after people in cases where they would never have done it even two years ago. ...
It's an intellectual exercise to think about what a reporter would do in today's environment if presented with that opportunity. You like to think we'd go for it again, because these stories were so important and so newsworthy. But some editors have publicly said that they're pulling off certain kinds of investigative reporting because of the threat of subpoena. I know the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer made some public comments about a big state scandal about a year ago, saying, "Well, we're not printing something now because we're afraid of getting mixed up in one of these subpoena messes." ...
We've been looking at a lot of other cases. They're mostly national security cases: Wen Ho Lee, [the Los Alamos scientist accused of spying for China]; the [Valerie Plame] leak investigation and the NSA [National Security Agency] eavesdropping case; the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] case. How does yours compare?
We're in a category by ourselves, I think. We're a sports story; there's no national security issue. Our case is long since over; defendants have pleaded guilty and paid their price to society. It's just a different dynamic. ...
I think if they can get a subpoena sustained in a case about sports doping, they're going to get one anytime that they want. And I think we're going to see this as a routine matter among reporters trying to cover the federal government. I just don't see how we're going to cover the federal government if we can't have confidential source relationships. ...
Do grand juries have a right to confidentiality?
Well, I respect the grand jury process, and I respect the government's effort to keep that stuff confidential. Nobody who testifies, however, before a grand jury should kid themselves that they have any personal confidentiality rights. That's just not the way it works. The government can make that public whenever it finds legal reason to do so.
If there had been a trial in the BALCO case, any one of these athletes stood a good chance of being a witness, having to report this stuff in open court. If ... the government thought it was relevant, they could have taken chunks of grand jury testimony and attached it to legal proceedings. ... It's all in the government's hands at that point, not in the witness's.
But if the government has given you immunity and has said, "We want you to come in and testify truthfully, and you're not the target of the investigation," you have some sense that unless legal process gets to a certain point, no one's going to know what you say. ... So who is Lance Williams to decide this should be public?
Well, it was news. It was big news. It was important. There were admissions by these athletes themselves. They weren't accusing other people; they were talking about their own conduct. It was really important, and it set off a chain of events that we think led to some positive reforms. I'm not disputing the government's right or need to conduct investigations confidentially. But in this case, exposing this information led to so many positive things happening that I think we can be excused for whatever procedural problems we helped cause.
You don't think you're above the law?
Oh, no, not at all. No, I respect the court system, and I'll comply with their wishes in every way possible. But I am being told to betray not only sources, but betray ideals that I've held for 30 years as a reporter. And I'm also being asked to give up my career, because don't kid yourself -- if they bully me into betraying my sources, I can't work anymore, can't be an investigative reporter anymore. ...
The government has said, ... "Now we have witnesses saying ... we don't want to testify before your grand jury, because there's no secrecy now."
They have ways to maintain grand jury secrecy, and they know what they are better than I do. I think this was an event that happened because of the way the case was being handled to begin with that led to the sources wanting to reveal the truth. If the government had ventilated some of the true information it had obtained in its investigation, there would probably not have been the opportunity for the reporter to get this material. ...
But the government says they did the socially redeemable work here: It's their grand jury; they got the indictments; they got the athletes to talk. And now you're profiting off of all of that and claiming the glory, if you will.
I don't on my own claim the glory. People who are familiar with the issue of sports doping, steroids and sports, they say it's the stories in the newspaper and the book that set off the outcry that has led to the reforms. What the government did was very important fact gathering. They indicted four guys, and then they settled that case and walked away from it without ever detailing what they had learned -- all sealed up; no one would know. ...
You said you could no longer work as a journalist [if you were made to give up your sources]. ... Have you been able to work since this happened?
Well, it's harder, of course, but I find the sources and prospective sources don't realize what's going on yet. I think there's a little lag time. Most people believe reporters can maintain confidential source relationships. They're surprised to hear that I'm in the middle of some legal mess trying to protect a source, because they think -- maybe because they're Californians and we have a strong shield law, or maybe just because that's the way it is on Law & Order on TV -- that the government can't do this to reporters. That's what the public seems to think, and we're just learning differently now.
And you say, "We're steadfast and resolute in that we're going to stand behind the sources." And you'll go to prison?
Well, what they do with me is not up to me, but we're going maintain that promise we made to the sources who helped us get these important stories.
I'm reminded of the hearing that [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller attended, her last hearing before going to prison, where the judge and the prosecutor both discussed in open court basically how long she was going to last. How long will you last?
I'm determined to keep my promise, and I think I'm a strong enough person that I will be able to do so. I'm also an optimistic person, and I really do think we're going to get some relief here, and it's not going to come to that.
Relief from the Court?
From the Court. And I also have hopes that we'll get a federal shield law that will help if not us, other reporters facing this situation.
That's true. We met the president in 2005 at a reception at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I introduced Mark to him. He knew who we were, and he knew the stories; he's a former baseball owner. He said, "You've done a service." ... I take him at his word. I think he meant that. It's ironic that now we find his administration putting us through this process. ...