GOP ACCUSED OF PLAYING POLITICS WITH BALCO
By Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross
These days everything is political -- so it should come as no surprise that the crackdown on steroids in sports is producing some political fireworks.
At issue here: the nonprofit anti-doping agency leading the crackdown on Olympic athletes, and its very interesting Republican ties.
It's all igniting with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's recent decision to pursue a case against Olympic sprinter superstar Marion Jones, based on government evidence from the BALCO steroid case.
"I don't have a problem with (the agency) targeting high-profile athletes if they are cheating,'' said Bob Weiner, who served as spokesman for the White House drug policy under President Bill Clinton.
"But you can't target people who are innocent and try to make them guilty, and with the specifics of the Marion Jones case that seems to be happening.''
The anti-doping agency thinks it has plenty of reasons to go after Jones, the five-time Olympic medalist, and they have nothing to do with politics.
The feds found a folder in a September raid on BALCO that had Jones' name and a calendar that looked like a scheduled use of banned drugs.
She had a longtime association with BALCO boss Victor Conte, and shot- putter ex-husband C.J. Hunter was banned from the Sydney Games in 2000 for using banned substances.
Jones insists she's never used banned drugs.
To Weiner -- who isn't involved in Jones' case -- and some of the sprinter's supporters, one of the problems is that the anti-doping agency has become "a Republican tool'' in its agenda to crusade against drugs.
Records show that the nonprofit received nearly $7 million last year -- or about two-thirds of its funding -- from a grant dispensed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The anti-doping agency hired the American Continental Group, a high- powered Washington law firm with big Republican credentials, to help lobby for federal funding, both from the White House and Congress.
Lobbying reports show that the anti-doping agency paid American Continental $78,124 in 2002, and between $60,000 and $100,000 last year.
At the same time, the firm's two lawyers assigned to the agency, Shawn Smeallie and David Metzner, are both "Pioneers" when it comes to donations to President Bush. That means they're among the elite who have raised more than $100,000 apiece for the president.
Against that backdrop, both Bush and the U.S. Justice Department, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, have launched a public campaign against steroid use.
The first hit came in January, when Bush used his State of the Union address to call on baseball players and owners "to send the right signal to get tough, and get rid of steroids now.''
A month later, Ashcroft, in what critics said was an unorthodox step, held a press conference in Washington to announce the indictments in the BALCO case -- including charges against Giants slugger Barry Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson.
Some of the evidence gathered by the Justice Department has been turned over to a congressional committee headed by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The committee, in turn, released the documents to the anti-doping agency, which is using some of that information to try to make drug cases against Jones and other athletes.
"In all my years I've been involved here, I've never seen the Justice Department turn over records the way they did here,'' says Don Goldberg, a veteran congressional investigator who was hired to help defend accused Olympic hopeful Tim Montgomery, Jones' boyfriend. "It just smells of politics all the way.''
Smeallie, who lobbied for the anti-doping agency, called Goldberg's accusations "a bit of a reach.''
First off, Smeallie said, the White House wanted to budget just $1.5 million a year for the agency, and it took the efforts of Congress to get the group's funding increased.
What's more, he says, the BALCO case started blowing up before his group ever got involved.
"It has nothing to do with funding,'' Smeallie said. "This is big-time stuff -- I think they would have been criticized if they didn't try to go after this because it was so blatant.''
Finally, Smeallie said, "We never had a meeting in the White House about this. ... To this day, I don't know how it got into the State of the Union.''
Smeallie's fellow lawyer Metzner called the allegations "grossly mistaken. ''
As for the anti-doping agency?
"(It) treats all athletes equally,'' agency spokesman Rich Wanniger said in a statement. "(The agency) is dedicated to preserving the well-being of Olympic sport, the integrity of competition, and ensuring the health of athletes.''