January 2, 2007
I sat down with Josh Peter, writer for Yahoo Sports! to discuss the story he broke on the 21st of December naming California defense attorney Troy Ellerman as the subject of an FBI investigation into whether or not he leaked grand jury testimony about the BALCO case to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada. The investigation itself was spurred by Peter's source, private investigator Larry McCormack. How Peter came across this story is itself a strange story about journalism amidst the larger bizarre canvas of the BALCO case.
The full interview is available as a Baseball Prospectus Radio podcast exclusive. You can download it here.
Baseball Prospectus: Let's talk a little bit about this story. Tell us, who is Troy Ellerman?
Josh Peter: Troy Ellerman is actually the commissioner of the PRCA, which is the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and probably an unusual link to the BALCO case. Before he took the role as commissioner of the PRCA, he was representing for a brief time Victor Conte, of course the founder of BALCO and Jim Valente who is his vice president at BALCO. In recent weeks I developed some information about a source that had come forward and alleged that Troy was a source of the leaks of the secret grand jury testimony in the BALCO case. And that's the story of course that we broke a few days ago.
BP: The person you spoke to is Larry McCormack, a private investigator who worked on that case. Tell us your connection to him and how you came to find out about him and the leaks.
JP: It's an odd connection. I spent the better part of 2004 following the professional bull riders' circuit for a book. In the process I subsequently developed some sources in the rodeo industry and got a tip about two months ago, maybe three months ago, that there were some things happening BALCO-related in the rodeo world, and got some names and it took me the better part of two months to develop the source I needed to move forward, and it finally came to fruition a couple weeks ago and the story we ran five days ago.
BP: With McCormack...he was involved in the case, and basically figured Ellerman as one of the big leakers. Why did McCormack do this having worked for Ellerman and this case?
JP: What McCormack has said is that there were a few factors in play that contributed to his decision to come forward. One, there was a period in which he wondered if he were possibly facing criminal charges himself by having this information and not coming forward. He sought the advice and analysis and interpretation of three different attorneys. He said that the attorneys he met with told him that he was not in jeopardy, but I think there was still some concern on his part about those charges. Secondly, he said it was moral issue, that what Troy had done in his opinion was wrong, that he had said as much from the get go, and as the case became more serious he decided it was time to come forward. Lastly, he said that he felt a certain amount of guilt that he had information that may have freed the reporters and I guess taken them out of the line of fire when it came to the possibility of serving jail time. All those three things, he says, contributed to his decision. Of course, there was some question about whether or not there was any retribution involved. He himself of course worked for the PRCA for a year and a half and was fired by the board, and with Troy Ellerman's influence there there were some questions about whether or not this was retaliatory in any way. He denies that this had anything to do with his decision to come forward.
BP: Obviously this is a situation that is ongoing; there have been breaks in this case after you even talked about this. One of the more interesting things is that those reporters than you mentioned, Mark Fainaru-Wada, Lance Williams are still facing jail time. One of the things that came up when this whole case was happening, when they were discussing putting those two gentlemen in jail because they refused to reveal their sources, is that the government did have a document released that accidentally named Victor Conte himself as one of the leaks. Did this come up during your investigation?
JP: As a matter of fact, Larry said that the FBI questioned him about that rigorously, and he did tell me that no information from Victor was involved in the leaks. I have no information to believe that Victor was involved in the leaks. It's curious that they've been so aggressive in going after Victor. Victor's a big talker, and there's no question he likes to share information about a story. No evidence yet that he was involved in the illegal activity when it came to the leaks, of course he was involved in the illegal activity when it came to the distribution of steroids, but that's another matter entirely.
BP: Obviously McCormack's motives here were both moral and legal. How did the FBI react to this? Obviously U.S. Attorney's Office is still very aggressive about going after this case and trying to figure out exactly who the leaks are and at the same time trying to get Fainaru-Wada and Williams to talk about this. Was there any reaction from them?
JP: It's a good question. I'm not sure if you're asking if there was any reaction to the story…
BP: From the FBI, yes.
JP: I'm not sure if they were pleased that Larry came forward and talked to us, in fact I heard at one point they were outraged and the next day they confirmed to AP that they were investigating the case. I'm not sure they would have been so willing to confirm that prior to our story running. But one of the mysteries and lingering questions is how the FBI and prosecution responded when Larry came forward. And without giving away the next stage of our reporting, that is something that interested us, in their pursuit of information and where they took things after Larry came forward.
BP: So there's more to come?
JP: Stay tuned.
BP: As a reporter, you've done a lot of work in the past on a lot of different things. So you have somewhat of a different take on Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. How do you feel they are being treated in this entire investigation? Did that factor into your reporting of their story?
JP: How are they being treated? I didn't give that a lot of thought, being on the other side of the story. As a reporter I would have gladly taken the documents, so it's odd being on the other side when they're refusing to give up information that you're chasing. But I guess it's all a story, you're all chasing information. But it's an odd situation when your brethren are holding firm to their pledge, and I'm after the information that supposedly the government's after. How they've been treated? I mean, it's hard to say. That's really up to the courts, and I don't have a law degree, and I'm not sure I've given a lot of thought to it. I would hope in a case like this though that they'd be granted the privilege of confidentiality. In my humble opinion, it doesn't rise to the level of such secrecy or such import or danger that these leaked grand jury documents could really subject someone to great harm. I was a little startled at the intensity that the government is going after the source and going after the reporters in search of the source.
BP: Barry Bonds' attorney, Michael Rains...he hasn't been shy about speaking out on any issue as part of this case. He also spoke out on this one. He says he doesn't believe that Ellerman is in fact the leak. What did you think of that statement?
JP: All along now he's accused the government. I don't want to say it's strategic but it's certainly worked in his favor. I know he's sort of played that as a trump card if they come after Bonds that he's going to release information that suggests that the government contributed to these leaks or was leaking information. The one thing that we're concerned about, the one thing that we were sort of testing with all the people that talked to is whether or not they were going to 'run us off' the story, whether or not they had information that suggested what we had was inaccurate. And Michael Rains at no point did that. In fact, he was incredibly cordial and said he was really interested to see what we had and found the story fascinating. That reassured us that he in no way had information that was going to refute or prove that what we had was inaccurate.
BP: Certainly that had to be a concern for you. You probably remember the Los Angeles Times article from last summer that purported to give some names in the Jason Grimsley affidavit that was immediately refuted by Kevin Ryan, the U.S. Attorney. Did that factor into your reporting at all?
JP: It was part of the discussion right before we actually published. We discussed that scenario and the consequences of that. I ultimately felt very comfortable with the credibility of our source. These weren't affidavits. We weren't were looking at information that was redacted. We had the source himself who had gone forward to the FBI, we had some corroborating information; ultimately we felt very comfortable. Troy Ellerman at no point said that this is outrage that this ever happened, he simply declined comment. We decided to go forward with the story and we've heard nothing that suggests what we did was inaccurate or that we defamed anybody or put us in a compromising position.
BP: One of the more interesting things that I noted about this article is that Larry McCormack came forward. He really didn't ask for anonymity, as far as I know, and his name is in the first paragraph of the article and he comes across as very credible. At least in everything I've seen, no one has questioned even his motives on this. Why did he elect to come so far forward when everyone else wants to hide behind the shadow of anonymity?
JP: I'm not going into great detail about Larry's history but he's got a pattern of doing this. When he sees things that he disagrees with or when he's involved in something that violates his principles, he comes forward even if he's going to suffer consequences. One thing that impressed me about Larry was that he was insistent that we understand any perceived conflict of interest when it came to this case. He stressed that he was a disgruntled employee with the PRCA, the group that Troy ran, and they had butted heads and he wanted us to understand that. This is not something that he hid. In my mind that just reassured me that this guy was credible. He thought it was important for the context of the story that people understand where people could punch holes in his story and how they might attack him. I found that to be first refreshing, and second reassuring that we were talking to someone of integrity.
BP: Where is this headed? Where do you feel the BALCO case as a whole is going now that there seems to be even more momentum on the government's side?
JP: I can't predict what's going to happen with the broad case but as far as Larry McCormack's concerned, I don't think we're finished here. As you probably recognized in our story, there's some things that he refused to disclose. He doesn't want to disrupt the investigation but I think he's going to closely monitor how things proceed, and if he feels like things aren't happening in a principled fashion, once again Larry McCormack's going to come forward, that's just his nature. Stay tuned.
BP: This should be interesting. Let's not make any secret of this. This guy was a private investigator. Do you have any idea what he was investigating?
JP: He was working briefly for Victor Conte and I will just tell you that Larry said the two of them did not get along, that apparently there was a financial dispute, and the relationship lasted no more than three months. He said the two just weren't able to work together. That's his the extent of his role as far as I know. Does he have information about the portions of the investigation? Not that I know of at this point. Allegedly he's aware of Troy Ellerman's dealings and leaking documents. I don't know the entirety of what Larry knows. Maybe at some point we will.