SAN FRANCISCO — BALCO founder Victor Conte pleaded guilty yesterday to steroid distribution and money laundering in a deal with federal prosecutors, making it much less likely that top athletes such as Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Marion Jones will be forced to testify about suspected drug use.
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, was charged with illegally distributing performance-enhancing drugs to more than 30 baseball, football and track and field stars. He faced a maximum of 20 years in prison for the money-laundering charge and five years for the conspiracy charge. If the judge accepts the deal, he will spend four months in prison and four months under house arrest.
“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. His attorney, Anna Ling, declined to address the question of whether Anderson provided steroids to San Francisco Giants baseball star Bonds.
Judge Illston will decide whether to accept the pleas at a sentencing hearing Oct. 18.
Prosecutors refused to comment on the deals, which included admissions by Conte, Valente and Anderson 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.
Earlier this year, Major League Baseball 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.
While the case made steroid use a front-burner issue from Capitol Hill to baseball clubhouses and from schools to living rooms, the plea agreements shielded several key athletes suspected of steroid use from having to testify in open court.
Some of the biggest names in sports — including baseball stars Bonds and Giambi — have been under suspicion based on BALCO grand jury transcripts that were leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as public accusations against Olympic track star Jones by Conte and others.
None of the athletes publicly has admitted steroid use, and pleas by all four defendants would mean they won’t have to repeat their secret grand jury testimony in a public courtroom.
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, Calif.
Korchemny’s attorney, George Walker, said outside 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,” Mr. 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.”