November 18, 2007
A Harvest of Trash and Turmoil for an Agent Fighting Steroids
By DUFF WILSON and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Jeff Novitzky is an unlikely contender for the role of Eliot Ness of the steroids age. He is an I.R.S. special agent, a position that is rarely glamorous. The work is often tedious and dull, poring over bank records and tax returns, and writing reports.
Mr. Novitzky, an accomplished high school athlete who majored in accounting in college, is quiet, respectful and direct in his work for the Internal Revenue Service, and he enjoys getting out of the office to track his cases. He is not above going through people’s trash. Or listening in on their phone calls.
He has been known to take their trash home some nights, to keep working.
Now, Mr. Novitzky is front and center in the biggest investigation to hit baseball since Chicago’s Black Sox scandal in 1919. He dug up the evidence that a grand jury used last week to indict Barry Bonds, who became baseball’s career home run leader this year with the San Francisco Giants. Mr. Bonds faces five felony charges for perjury and obstruction of justice that could send him to prison for years.
It was clear almost immediately after the indictment was announced that Mr. Bonds would not be the only person on trial in San Francisco next year. Mr. Bonds’s lawyers are trying to base their defense on Mr. Novitzky and his methods. The very qualities that make Mr. Novitzky a respected investigator — his passion, aggressiveness and perseverance — are expected to be used against him in trying to have the case dismissed.
Over the past five years, the meticulous but little-known Mr. Novitzky has been dogging some of the world’s finest athletes and their coaches and the people who may have supplied them with performance-enhancing drugs.
Among government officials and antidoping authorities, Mr. Novitzky is heralded as a pioneer. They credit him with helping to change how the illegal distribution of performance-enhancing drugs is prosecuted. They describe him as a tenacious and methodical investigator whose work has always held up in court.
Mr. Novitzky’s work has cost the sprinter Marion Jones five Olympic medals and has helped obtain federal convictions of her and six others. He has persuaded many of the people who inhabit that world to save themselves by helping him — without ever raising his voice.
He urged the former Mets clubhouse worker Kirk Radomski, said to be the biggest supplier of steroids to Major League Baseball players until 2005, to become a government informant and wear a listening device as he went about his work for 16 months. Mr. Novitzky secured his cooperation after leading a surprise raid at Mr. Radomski’s home on Long Island.
George J. Mitchell, the former senator, is relying on information based on Mr. Novitzky’s legwork to provide details and evidence for his coming report on steroids in baseball.
No Shortage of Critics
Mr. Novitzky’s detractors, mainly the defendants and their lawyers, say he is biased and unfair. They say he has a vendetta against Mr. Bonds, is seeking fame and financial gain from the case, and puts words into suspects’ mouths. They say he has lied in sworn reports, including on the initial search warrant affidavit that kick-started the investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and its many famous clients.
Since May, Mr. Bonds’s lawyer, Michael Rains, has accused Mr. Novitzky of lying in the court documents used to obtain much of the evidence gathered against Mr. Bonds, according to letters obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Novitzky’s credibility, motives and methods have been the subject of correspondence between Mr. Rains and the United States attorney’s office in San Francisco.
“Cheating to win — the athletes did it; the government did it, too,” Victor Conte Jr., Balco’s founder and president, said in an interview. Mr. Conte spent four months in jail based on evidence Mr. Novitzky gathered.
Mr. Novitzky declined to be interviewed for this article or to respond specifically to assertions of his misconduct by Mr. Rains. He asked that his photograph not be published, explaining in an e-mail message, “The possibility of greatly diminishing my ability to investigate this case and others arises any time my picture and name are publicized.”
Growing up in Burlingame, Calif., Mr. Novitzky, the 6-foot-6 son of a high school basketball coach, starred in basketball and track at Mills High School, once setting a state record by clearing 7 feet in the high jump. But his collegiate career — at three universities over five years — was washed out by knee and back injuries.
“He was very clean-cut, yes-sir, no-sir, always there on time, hustle, and do everything you asked him to do,” Stan Morrison, the former San Jose State University basketball coach, said in an interview. “He was absolutely an Eagle Scout.”
Mr. Novitzky joined the I.R.S. in 1993. For nine years, he worked low-profile cases in the Bay Area as he and his wife, Stacy, a nurse, started their family. They have three daughters, ages 10, 8 and 2. Mr. Novitzky drives a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, coaches girls’ sports and plays fantasy football in a league with his high school buddies.
He lives around the corner from his parents, and his father said he would rather remain an agent to stay near home than be promoted and be subject to transfers. The I.R.S. refuses to say how much Mr. Novitzky makes, but the top salary for a special agent in San Jose is $145,400 a year.
The Balco case started in August 2002. At the time, using steroids without a prescription was a crime largely ignored by the authorities. The F.B.I. mostly stopped doing drug cases after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Drug Enforcement Administration focused primarily on the biggest ones, involving heroin or cocaine. Rusty Payne, a D.E.A. spokesman, said the Bay Area steroids case was “from a D.E.A. standpoint, small potatoes.”
Mr. Novitzky lives less than a mile from Mr. Conte’s Balco office and the World Gym where Mr. Bonds pumped himself up during his home run spree in 2001, when he hit a record 73.
Assigned to the case after a tip, Mr. Novitzky started going through the Balco trash in September 2002. The reasons for the investigation are unclear. Collecting drug samples and financial records weekly, Mr. Novitzky identified more than a dozen famous clients.
“Most federal investigations are built on cooperating witnesses,” said Nanci L. Clarence, a San Francisco defense lawyer for athletes summoned to the grand jury. “More rarely do you see Dumpster diving.”
Mr. Novitzky also joined Mr. Bonds’s gym. Back in his office in San Jose, he teamed with Jeff Nedrow, an assistant United States attorney, and enlisted Don H. Catlin, then director of the U.C.L.A. Olympic Analytical Laboratory, as his drug tutor.
Dr. Catlin recalled that Mr. Novitzky could not even pronounce eritropotin, a common steroid, when they first spoke. Years later, some people thought Mr. Novitzky had medical training, so commanding was his knowledge of performance-enhancing drugs.
Some Tactical Errors
But lawyers defending athletes are suspicious of Mr. Novitzky’s motives and describe him as out of control. They point to the many charges that have been dropped, the light sentences for those who have been convicted and the sluggish pace of the investigation. Of the seven people convicted in the Balco case, a lawyer who leaked grand jury testimony received the toughest sentence, two and a half years.
Mr. Novitzky made some tactical mistakes. He took Balco trash home to examine, then put the resealed bags in a trash container behind a building near his old high school that had no connection to the case. The owner of that building complained to Balco.
It was then, Mr. Conte said, that he knew someone was going through his trash. He also said he learned his mail was being opened and copied, and he said he once spotted somebody following him. Joyce Valente, a Balco employee, filed a police report about the “stolen” trash in August 2002, and the local weekly paper published an item about it. Three weeks later, forced to act quickly, Mr. Novitzky led 20 agents on the raid of Balco.
“They came in before they were ready to,” Mr. Conte said. “They’d blown their cover.”
Mr. Novitzky does not tape his interviews but writes detailed reports. Mr. Conte; Greg Anderson, Mr. Bonds’s personal trainer; James Valente, Balco’s former vice president; and the former pitcher Jason Grimsley are among those who have complained that Mr. Novitzky misstated some of what they said or attributed to them information he had collected elsewhere. Mr. Conte has filed sworn statements saying he had not even met 3 of the 27 athletes to whom Mr. Novitzky said he had admitted giving steroids.
Mr. Conte said Mr. Novitzky’s mistakes led the government to drop 40 of 42 charges against him. The prosecutors said that his was a fair outcome and that Mr. Novitzky had not erred.
In letters to Scott N. Schools, the interim United States attorney in San Francisco, Mr. Rains argued that the government should walk away from its investigation because of Mr. Novitzky’s “vendetta” against Mr. Bonds.
But Dwight Sparlin, a retired I.R.S. manager who led the San Francisco office when the Balco case started, said the original focus was on Mr. Conte.
“He wasn’t even looking at Barry Bonds,” Mr. Sparlin said in an interview. “What appears to be a small money-laundering case, you never know where it will go.”
Mr. Rains accused Mr. Novitzky of perjury in two sworn statements at the heart of the Balco case. Mr. Rains wrote that all evidence obtained from Balco and Mr. Anderson’s home against all defendants should be thrown out because Mr. Novitzky put a false statement in the original search warrant affidavit about the reliability of an informant.
Mr. Rains also said two members of the San Mateo narcotics task force, who worked with Mr. Novitzky early in the case, met with Mr. Nedrow, the assistant United States attorney, to express their concerns about what they said were the false statements by Mr. Novitzky. Mr. Rains wrote that Mr. Nedrow replied that he would deal with the problems later but never did. One member of the task force did not respond to specific questions by e-mail, and the other could not be identified.
In early 2003, Mr. Novitzky had a state narcotics agent go undercover in a gym to try to befriend Mr. Anderson. The agent, Iran White, later told Playboy magazine that Mr. Novitzky was obsessed with Mr. Bonds and talked about writing a book. One of the task force agents corroborated Mr. White’s account, according to Mr. Rains’s letters to Mr. Schools.
Mr. Novitzky signed a sworn statement in 2004 denying he had ever discussed a book deal. A response to Mr. Rains from Mr. Schools did not address the specific contentions about Mr. Novitzky, but said the government would continue the case against Mr. Bonds because it had “significant evidence that contradicts your client’s grand jury testimony.”
Mr. Conte said the government gave favorable sentences to the Balco defendants in plea negotiations after postponing a court hearing that was going to focus on Mr. Novitzky’s conduct.
“We were going to nail him, big time,” Mr. Conte said, a threat now being repeated by Mr. Rains.
Kevin V. Ryan, the United States attorney in San Francisco until earlier this year, said none of the complaints had merit.
“He has taken a lot of unfair shots,” Mr. Ryan said of Mr. Novitzky in a telephone interview. “Most of the criticism, if not all, has been false or hyperbole or an effort to distract people’s attention from what is going on. There has not been a motion to suppress that has held up. Those that have been granted were reversed. Everything he has done has held up.”
Some antidoping advocates gush when they speak of Mr. Novitzky’s effect on sports.
“Agent Novitzky has been one of the pioneers in trying to rid an issue that is cancerlike in the world of sports,” Peter V. Ueberroth, the chairman of the United States Olympic Committee and former baseball commissioner, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Ryan put his work in even grander terms: “He has changed the face of sports.”
Trail of Confessions
Last month, Mr. Novitzky induced Ms. Jones, once the world’s most famous female athlete, to admit to steroid use after seven years of public denial. To extract her confession, he used the leverage of a more serious charge from an unrelated check-fraud scheme. No positive test result was needed. Ms. Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents.
The world-class sprinters Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin were swayed by Mr. Novitzky to be informants. Their former coach, Trevor Graham, is also facing trial for lying to Mr. Novitzky, a charge Mr. Graham denies. Lawyers for Mr. Graham say Mr. Novitzky has been unfair, but lawyers for Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Gatlin praised him.
“Even in the range of federal law enforcement, his ability is high.” said Timothy J. Heaphy, a former federal prosecutor who is Montgomery’s lawyer. Mr. Heaphy described him as “respectful, polite and prepared.”
Mr. Novitzky confronted Mr. Gatlin with the evidence he had against him, and persuaded him to make more than a dozen undercover telephone calls, starting the day they met. Later, Mr. Novitzky testified for Mr. Gatlin at a track federation hearing.
Mr. Novitzky has “a very physical, imposing presence,” Ms. Clarence, the lawyer for athletes, said, adding that he is “good at putting the thumb on people, pressuring them to cooperate.”
His work has spawned inquiries beyond Balco. The D.E.A. is making major cases in part because Congress, influenced by the Balco case, enhanced the penalties for steroid distribution. More steroid cases are being prosecuted under state laws, too. The Albany County district attorney’s office in New York is pursuing Internet pharmacies in four states. That case has also made news for implicating professional athletes as customers.
Next month, Mr. Bonds will make his first appearance in federal court. Mr. Radomski is expected to be sentenced. The Mitchell report is due soon. Ms. Jones is to be sentenced Jan. 11.
After she pleaded guilty last month in White Plains, she admitted to cheating and lying about steroid use, sobbing on the courthouse steps.
Standing alone, away from the crowd, was the tall, bald I.R.S. agent waiting for a car to take him to the airport.