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Investigating the investigator:

In-depth with Lance Williams of The San Francisco Chronicle,

threatened with prison for refusing to reveal his sources
on the BALCO steroids-in-baseball doping scandal story

Chronicle Staff Writer Lance Williams.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Daniela Kirshenbaum, Fog City Journal I-Team

December 21, 2006 11:36 p.m.

Lance Williams has been an investigative reporter for 15 years, for both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner before that. He uncovers political motivations and government missteps with such grace that he makes his job look easy. His latest big story, on steroid use in major league baseball, is international news and has led to a possible 18-month prison term for himself and his colleague, Mark Fainaru-Wada. Suspense is building until the appeal on February 12. Williams talks about the greater meaning of it all -- and what his parents think. He also comments about the latest revelation of a potential source of the leak that led to the story.

Daniela Kirshenbaum speaks with Williams on behalf of Fog City Journal:

DK: Lance, any of us mortals would be terrified by a ride in the back of a cop car, much less the idea of a year and a half in the Big House. Yet your sense of humor is intact. Are you superhuman?

LW: Mark and I were sentenced to prison because we refused to betray the confidential sources who helped us report on the BALCO steroids scandal for the Chronicle and for our book, Game of Shadows. Breaking promises to our sources just isn't an option for us, and so here we are, subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury and convicted of contempt of court for declining to participate. We're reporters, nothing more. Any reporter in our circumstances would do just what we are doing.

DK: How is this affecting your daily life?

LW: Mark and I are still working as reporters. But there are days and even weeks when we cannot get much newspapering done, because we have tasks that involve our legal case. Beyond that, the threat of prison can be a distraction, without a doubt. But I try not to give in to it. I'm optimistic about our appeal, and even if the worst happens, it isn't so bad - many people have endured far worse in life than what we face.

On a personal note, I find that since I was sentenced to prison, I no longer like to watch "Law and Order" reruns on t.v. I've switched to "Perry Mason," even if it is in black & white.

DK: Is there a bigger effect, beyond what happens to you and Mark?

LW: Attorney General Gonzales claims he has the absolute right to put reporters in front of grand juries and question them about their sources, whenever he wants. And that's what federal prosecutors around the country are doing, more and more. I think this represents a dire threat to the public's right to independent information about the federal government.

Unless the Justice Department backs off, reporters won't be able to do their work, because prospective news sources will be afraid to speak to them. Whistleblowers won't come forward, and all manner of corruption, injustice and incompetence will go unexposed.

The country needs a federal shield law to protect news sources and reporters from subpoenas. There's a bill in Congress, but it hasn't made it out of committee.

DK: Is this whole experience making you rethink your career? Is food writing starting to appeal to you?

LW: The night before we were sentenced I re-read the affidavits that our lawyers had filed with the judge - testimonials from the former communications director for Attorney General Ashcroft, from the parents of two young athletes who had committed suicide after abusing steroids, even from Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. By and large, the writers said our stories were a public service and had led to important reforms.

After I got done reading, I emailed Mark to tell him that whatever happened to us, I was still glad we did the stories, and I'd do the same thing again if I got the chance.
I admire garden writing, but I'm not sure I'd be any good at it.

DK: You are practically a household name. What's that sort of fame like?

LW: I was delighted that our Chronicle stories got attention and made a difference, because that's every reporter's goal. And of course I was delighted that Game of Shadows got attention, because writers desperately want readers to know about their work. I'm still not comfortable giving interviews. I'm a low profile person, and it's a little unsettling to lose that for awhile. But I can't complain - as a reporter, I've disrupted the privacy of too many other people over the years.

DK: Can you explain why anybody would want to put you in prison?

LW: I can't explain why the government decided to come after us - our story involves sports, it poses no threat to national security or to the safety of anybody, and President Bush himself said our reporting had done a service.

Some people speculate that Attorney General Gonzales is intent on crushing the press, and believes that if he can get the courts to sign off on a subpoena of reporters in the BALCO case, he can subpoena a reporter any time he wants. Others have suggested that Gonzales is simply a permissive boss who lets his prosecutors do whatever they want. In this view, Gonzales is approving press subpoenas that a stronger AG - Ashcroft or Janet Reno - would have rejected out of hand.

DK: Is this part of some sinister political current? Are we going to look back on this jailing-the-reporter trend the way we look at the McCarthy witch-hunt era of the 1950's?

L.W: Eve Burton, general counsel for Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chronicle, says Hearst has been served with 80 media subpoenas in the past couple of years - far more than it had received in the prior decade.

I don't mean to sound alarmist, but if this trend isn't reversed, eventually the public's only source of info about the federal government will be the pronouncements of government spin doctors. People who know what is actually going on will be afraid to speak, for fear of getting caught up in a leak investigation.

DK: Can you reassure us that, should worse come to worst, you'll have 18 months of a Martha Stewart kind of retreat, working on your tan?

LW: I believe they may put us in a pre-trial prison in Dublin, in the East Bay suburbs. "It's not Strawberry Fields," as an inmate I know describes it. Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' trainer, and Josh Wolfe, the young videographer, are being held there on their contempt of court convictions. According to Josh's mom, whom I met recently at the Northern California SPJ dinner, Josh is locked down most of the time, and only gets to go outside for one hour every other day.

DK: I think it's fair to say that you have our affection not just because of your super personality, but because of the critical work you do. When we look up your stories on SFGate.com, it's clear that we need 100 more Lance Williams. What can we do to help? Can we show up in court in February?

LW: People can write to Congress, asking the lawmakers to enact a federal shield law. The markandlance.org web site, which was set up by the Sportswriters for Freedom of the Press organization, has details on the legislation now pending.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hold a hearing on our appeal on Feb. 12. It's a public hearing, and I'm certainly planning on being there.

DK: Most of your pieces are about local government. How did you happen upon this story?

LW: Mark was a sportswriter who transferred to the Chronicle's investigative team in September, 2003. Before he was assigned a project, the IRS raided what I thought was a vitamin company down by the airport -- BALCO. The feds wouldn't tell anyone what they were investigating. Our boss, Steve Cook, asked Mark to try and find out what was going on. Quickly, Mark learned that the government believed BALCO was a steroid mill that was supplying drugs to some of the world's greatest athletes, including Barry Bonds. Steve thought there were too many leads to chase for one reporter, so I was assigned as well. Three years later, we're still at it.

DK: Are you surprised that it's not the sports heavies who are such a threat to you, but the federal government itself? Is there something about this story in particular that has made you a target?

LW: I thought the prosecutors might try to find out who leaked grand jury testimony to us. But I was surprised that we were subpoenaed, because our case didn't seem to fit the guidelines for press subpoenas that the Justice Department has followed since the 1970s. But after our stories were published in the Chronicle in 2004, Justice seemed to abandon the guidelines.

DK: Judith Miller of the New York Times went to prison not long ago for refusing to reveal her sources. At first she came off as a heroine, but her faulty reporting on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq has cast her as more of a villain. Has her case resonated with yours?

LW: From all I've read, the Valerie Plame case was complex. It involved national security - the outing of an undercover CIA agent - and the news sources the prosecutors were pursuing turned out to be some of the most powerful political figures in the country.

By contrast, our case is simple. Federal investigators obtained that Bonds and other great athletes used banned drugs they got at BALCO. When the Justice Department decided to keep that information secret, sources who believed the truth should be revealed gave us access to the info.

DK: Reporters are expected to keep their opinions when writing their stories. Can you share with us your unvarnished thoughts on pro sports and doping? What's your reaction to hearing that Barry Bonds just got a new contract for $15 million dollars, and is looking at being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, while you might possibly be sitting in prison?

LW: Before BALCO I thought I knew what was going on in elite sports, but it turned out I didn't have a clue. Steroid use is far, far more prevalent, and far easier to get away with, than I ever imagined. There is significant evidence that Bonds transformed himself into a home-run hitter by using illegal drugs, and then lied under oath to the government to cover it up. If baseball's executives want to celebrate Bonds while the federal prosecutors lock us up for reporting the truth - well, bless their hearts.

DK: What do your mom and dad think about all this?

LW: My folks live in the Midwest. They are absolutely appalled by what the Justice Department is doing to their boy, and they spend a lot of time agitating their fellow Republicans about BALCO. Protecting the First Amendment is a bi-partisan issue, from the grassroots all the way up to Congress, where a coalition of Republicans and Democrats is pushing the Shield Law.

DK: How about this new revelation about your possible source for the leak?

LW: I want to make clear we just can't say anything about the sources. The government is going after this guy, but that's his business; we're not involved in it at all. Nobody's called us up to say "your subpoena's been withdrawn!" We don't know what's going on and we still have a promise we need to keep. I don't know where this is going to go; the government is going to file their appellate brief tomorrow. And the guy doesn't seem to be saying whether he is the source.

I don't have tons of insight. The government is just not consulting us -- [Lance chuckles] -- can you believe that?

DK: Thank you, Lance, for your time and patience, and for keeping all of us informed. Even die-hard baseball fanatics have been curious to know how and why Barry Bonds seemed to expand in so many ways.

Barry Bonds
Photo by Drew Nederpelt

+ + +


Was this guy the source for Lance's stories?

Background on the steroids-in-baseball story and why Lance might go to prison.

About the prison itself.

Barry Bonds = Cash money dollars.

The official Barry Bonds website.

ESPN: Bonds denies head size expansion and genitalia shrinkage.

Sports Illustrated describes "Shrek-like forehead".

Conspiracy corner! Giants owner + political donations.


Editor's Note: Views expressed by columnists published on FogCityJournal.com are not necessarily the views or beliefs of Fog City Journal. Fog City Journal supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a forum for a complete spectrum of viewpoints.



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