Baseball steroid probe could backfire on panel

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) could be forced to take the witness stand in federal court if his House Government Reform Committee votes to hold any Major League Baseball players in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about steroid abuse.

Davis’s possible court appearance is just another chapter in the long-simmering dispute between Congress and Major League Baseball over the issue of players’ steroid use. Seven players and former players, including some of the game’s biggest stars, have been subpoenaed to appear Thursday before Davis’s committee.

If the committee does vote to hold any of the players in contempt, the House would then vote on whether the U.S. attorney should conduct a trial. Should the contempt charges advance to the trial stage, Davis and perhaps ranking Democrat Henry Waxman (Calif.) would be forced to take the witness stand to defend their committee’s jurisdiction, according to Stan Brand, who is representing six of the seven players who were subpoenaed.

“In a court of law, they have to be cross-examined by me without the support of their press aides and everyone else,” said Brand, a former staff member to then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) “They have to prove they have jurisdiction, and they have to do that beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But a spokesman for Davis dismissed that scenario outright. “I’m not going to participate in Brand’s elaborate screenplay,” committee spokesman David Marin said. “We’ll take it one step at a time.”

The committee issued subpoenas to current baseball stars Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling, Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa, in addition to retired stars Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, whose recent book named a number of current and former players who have used steroids. The committee also subpoenaed representatives of the league and the Players Association.

“We chose what we thought were a good cross-section of players,” Marin said Friday, responding to a question about the committee’s methodology for choosing the players who should testify.

San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds conspicuously was left off the list. Bonds, who holds the single-season home-run record and is approaching Hank Aaron’s career home-run record, testified to a grand jury in 2003 that he had unknowingly used substances later determined to be steroids.

Davis told Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that “we didn’t want to make [the investigation] about one player.”

Contempt-of-Congress prosecutions have been remarkably rare. The last was in 1983, when Rita Lavelle, an EPA administrator, was charged with contempt of Congress for perjuring herself in congressional testimony before a Washington jury quickly cleared her of that charge.
Brand contends that the committee’s investigation, which includes a request to view the league’s new steroid-testing agreement with the players union, is a direct violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects labor negotiations between private parties, because it would force league and player’s association officials to violate the confidentiality and privacy rights of that agreement.

“This uncommonly intrusive review by Congress will inevitably make it more difficult for bargaining parties — not just those in sports — to reach agreements on sensitive issues,” Brand wrote in a letter to the committee.

He also argued that the committee’s jurisdiction does not extend to Major League Baseball because it does not pertain to the “overall economy, efficiency, and management of government operations and activities, including federal procurement.”

In addition, Brand said that the investigation would violate the players’ privacy rights if they are forced to testify about steroid use that may have occurred before the new drug-testing policy was introduced. “All the players involved see the invitation, therefore, as an effort to embarrass them or their peers,” the letter states.

Government reform is not the only committee to investigate steroid use in this Congress, although it is the only one to target Major League Baseball.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing Thursday about steroid abuse at which Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) hinted that further committee hearings could include professional athletes.
“This committee has the jurisdiction to make changes, whether it is in the business practices of sports organizations or the health aspects,” Barton said in a statement before the committee, before adding, “It is my desire that it does not come to that.”

A slight margin of sports fans felt congress was overstepping its bound with the investigation, according to an espn.com poll taken last weekend.

In response to the question “Are these hearings a good use of Congress’ time and resources?” 56 percent of the 19,181 respondents said, “No, Congress is grandstanding on a hot-button issue,” while 44 percent said, “Yes, it’s a major health issue that impacts not only a major industry, but also America’s youth.”

Public opinion aside, Davis remains committed to the investigation and sees it as an opportunity for the league to clear the record about a controversial issue that has hung heavily over the league in recent years, especially following a surge in homeruns and other offensive statistics.

“We’ve been frustrated thus far by [the league’s] lack of cooperation,” Marin said. “Davis sees this as a good opportunity for Major League Baseball. This provides a pretty good platform for the players. For some, this is a chance to clear their names.”