Williams ’72 speaks on reporting BALCO steroids scandal

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Investigative journalist Lance Williams ’72 spoke about the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroids scandal, the impact of his book “Game of Shadows” and the lingering possibility that he could go to federal prison in List 120 last night.

The talk was hosted by The Herald, Alumni Relations and Campus Life and Student Services and featured a discussion between Williams and former Herald Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Ellis ’06.

Williams and co-author Mark Fainaru-Wada brought national attention to the steroid scandal in professional sports with their articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and subsequent book. He said one of his most important sources of information for the story was Kim Bell, the ex-girlfriend of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

“She had kept all kinds of things from her relationship with Bonds,” Williams said, explaining that Bell had documents to support her claims. “After the book came out, I did get a chance to talk to her. … She said, ‘Well I liked it. People could see I was telling the truth.’ “

But Bell told Williams she saw one problem with the book – she felt it lacked an ending.

“At first I was really troubled by this because actually I thought the book’s ending was like a piece of music by Mozart,” Williams joked. What Bell meant by the comment, Williams said, was that the steroid scandal is ongoing. Bonds has not been convicted of using or buying illegal steroids and Major League Baseball remains in the midst of conducting its own extensive investigation into steroid use by players led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Though Bell agreed to go on the record for the story, Williams and Fainaru-Wada obtained much information from confidential sources whose identities they promised not to reveal.

Last year, both writers were sentenced to 18 months in jail, pending appeal, for refusing to comply with a federal subpoena that mandated they disclose their source for the athletes’ sealed grand jury testimony. The 18 months would have been more jail time than the four months Victor Conte, BALCO’s founder, received for his role in distributing the illegal drugs.

As a result of his experience facing persecution from the federal government, Williams said he strongly believes the nation needs a federal shield law to protect reporters from having to divulge who their confidential sources are.

“We’ve got to do something about this in the United States,” he said. “What I’m concerned about here, and what I think we all should be concerned about, is cutting off the people from independent information about their government.”

Williams also reminisced about his time on College Hill. He was not involved with journalism at Brown and considered becoming a professor after graduation. Though he eventually went to journalism school on the advice of one of his professors, he told the audience there was no need to worry about finding a job after graduation.

“I was nothing special as a student at Brown. … I know that everybody says this, but it’s true,” Williams said. “If you can muddle through somehow, you can probably get a job and keep it. And maybe even stay out of federal prison.”

Williams’ extensive career before he began covering the BALCO story ranged from reports on Oakland’s Black Panthers to investigations into financial abuses by officials in the University of California system.

“I liked almost every part of my career in newspapers. I hate to say that cause it sounds so positive, but I (began my career) at a little paper chasing little stories and I thought that was really fun,” Williams said.

When asked for his thoughts on professional baseball after investigating the BALCO story, Williams said he was a “second-deck baseball fan” prior to becoming involved in the story and that he had hopes for the future of the war on doping.

Though Williams said he thought his and Fainaru-Wada’s reporting had a positive impact on the sport, he added that doping remains prevalent and speculated about how the era would be remembered. Much depends on the outcome of Mitchell’s official investigation into the players’ steroid use.

“How it plays out will depend on what baseball does with the Mitchell Report,” Williams said. “It depends on whether Bonds is indicted for perjury. A lot of stuff is in the highly anticipated future right now.”

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