SAN FRANCISCO – BALCO founder Victor Conte's plea deal could be another home run for Barry Bonds (search).
The San Francisco Giants slugger, along with Jason Giambi (search) of the New York Yankees and track star Marion Jones, now will likely never be forced to testify in open court about steroid use.
A potentially damaging trial for the celebrity athletes was head off Friday when Conte pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering in a deal with federal prosecutors.
Greg Anderson, Bonds' longtime friend and personal trainer, pleaded guilty to the same charges in exchange for a sentence of up to six months. BALCO vice president James Valente pleaded guilty to one count of distributing illegal steroids and is expected to receive two years' probation.
In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop dozens of counts against Conte, Anderson and Valente.
A fourth man, track coach Remi Korchemny, delayed accepting any plea agreement.
Conte, who founded the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (search), was charged with conspiring to distribute performance-enhancing drugs to more than 30 unidentified baseball, football and track and field stars. The money laundering charges carried a maximum 20-year term and the conspiracy charge five years. But authorities said because of sentencing guidelines that consider a wide range of factors, including past criminal conduct and whether a defendant admitted guilt, Conte and the others weren't likely to get more than a year in prison even if they pleaded guilty to all the charges.
Under Conte's deal, if accepted by the judge this fall, he'll spend four months in prison and four months on house arrest.
Some of the biggest names in sports have been under a cloud of suspicion based on BALCO grand jury transcripts that were leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as public accusations against Olympic star Jones by Conte and others.
None of the athletes publicly has admitted steroid use — Jones has vehemently denied it — and with the guilty pleas, those and other athletes won't have to testify in their trials and repeat their secret grand jury testimony in a public courtroom.
"I agreed with others to distribute steroids," Conte said in court. "I knew at the time that steroid distribution was an unlawful activity."
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston pointedly asked Anderson: "Did you distribute steroids to athletes?"
"Yes," Anderson replied.
Anderson declined to speak with reporters afterward. And his attorney, Anna Ling, declined to address the question of whether Anderson gave Bonds steroids. Conte, Anderson and Valente sat with each other in the gallery for more than an hour before their cases were called.
Korchemny, his attorney and prosecutors appeared to have reached a deal, but he apparently got cold feet while the judge was handling a lengthy drug case before the BALCO case was called before a packed courtroom here.
Judge Illston will decide whether to accept the pleas at a sentencing hearing Oct. 18.
Conte, Valente and Anderson admitted that they distributed about a half dozen drugs, some known as the "clear," the "cream" and THG. Some were taken orally, others injected or rubbed into the skin.
The case, which began two years ago when authorities learned about a new, undetected designer steroid, opened the public's eyes to performance-enhancing drugs in sports while forcing professional leagues to tighten drug-testing rules.
In an interview with The Associated Press hours after the hearing, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said the prosecution prompted wholesale changes in the sports world regarding performance-enhancing drugs, including changes in testing rules in professional sports and track and field. He said current sentencing guidelines for steroid pushers are weak.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, he said, Conte could have been sentenced to no more than about a year in prison even if he pleaded guilty to all 42 counts against him.
The two counts he and Anderson pleaded to carried a combined maximum of 25 years.
"Congress needs to give us stronger sentencing guidelines," Ryan said. He added that "Maybe this case is something they can look to as to how the guidelines apply in a major steroid distribution case."
He added that Anderson and Valente could have gotten no more than six months each had they pleaded to all the counts.
As the prosecution was lingering in court, major league baseball earlier this year toughened its drug-testing policy, mandating suspensions for initial violations. Congress also threatened to implement a federal drug-testing policy for the NFL, NBA, NHL and the major leagues, with a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second violation.
The case has deeply impacted track and field. Tim Montgomery, one of the world's fastest men, went before a secret arbitration hearing last month in San Francisco to challenge a potential lifetime ban that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency recommended for his alleged use of banned substances. No decision has been made, but USADA targeted Montgomery and more than a dozen other runners after reviewing evidence obtained in the BALCO investigation.
One of USADA's latest cases was in May, when runner Michelle Collins declined to contest the agency's imposition of a four-year ban, including forfeiture of her 200-meter world indoor and U.S. indoor titles in 2003.
Conte, Anderson, Valente and Korchemny were charged last year with dozens of counts in connection to federal raids at Burlingame-based BALCO in 2003 and at Anderson's house in Burlingame.
Korchemny's attorney, George Walker, said outside of court that the government has agreed not to imprison his client if he pleads guilty to a single reduced charge of doling out steroids, but Korchemny is having trouble admitting guilt. "There are some areas of concern that my client cannot swear to," Walker said.
Federal agents stated in court records they seized calendars and other documents detailing the use of steroids by professional baseball players during the search of Anderson's home. A federal agent wrote in court papers that, during the raid at BALCO headquarters, "Conte openly acknowledged giving testosterone-based cream, itself a steroid, to numerous professional athletes."