02.12.09

ESPN’s Pessah Introduces Us to Barry’s IRS Tormentor

Posted in Sports Journalism at 3:44 pm by

I had drinks a couple months ago with a guy who was trying to put together a thinking feller’s sports quarterly thing, which was cool. I like drinks, I like the idea of putting something into actual print — like on a pulped-up tree, for sale; it sounds weird, I know, but people used to read stuff on that. And it was a good meeting, in the way those slow-to-develop, never-will-help-with-rent things can be. At this meeting, I learned something weird about ESPN the Magazine that made total sense to me.

Most of the magazine, which I receive at home as part of my ESPN Insider membership, is pretty awful. It’s all surface-skimming redemption stories and glib profiles and Stuart Scott’s excruciating Larry King imitation — the most recent issue contains his memorably unpersuasive case for Pat Tillman’s Hall of Fame enshrinement — and a series of columns ranging in literary value from poor to very poor. But on the masthead, beneath the bigger names, is a guy who’s been in Best American Sportswriting, twice. This guy, Tommy Craggs. He’s a “contributing researcher,” which means he’s basically a fact-checker, and has seemingly only once been published in the mag. Stephen Smith phones in some “yeah, I said it”s for six figures, then Craggs makes sure that Smith did indeed (yeah) say it.

His mis-use seems to fit with the blithe obliviousness — or oblivious blitheness, maybe — that makes the magazine so broadly lame. But while the pieces in the magazine generally refuse to challenge their readers in anything but the least challenging of ways, every now and then something interesting seems to sneak in as if by accident. In the most recent issue, right after The Sports Bro’s forehead-slapping take on which Knicks-flaying was better, Kobe’s 62-0-3 or LeBron’s 52-9-11 (guess which one!), ESPN senior writer Jon Pessah takes an angle on the Balco/Bonds affair that I actually haven’t read before. In so doing, Pessah introduces us to another of the clock-punching, civil liberty-flouting nightmare apparatchiks who were the quiet antiheroes of so many of our Bush Era travails. Meet Jeff Novitzky:

Until September 2003, Novitzky was an anonymous IRS special agent working drug and fraud crimes in Silicon Valley. Then his investigation into BALCO blew the lid off steroids. Soon he had the backing of Congress, President Bush”who included steroids in a State of the Union”and the U.S. attorney general, who announced the BALCO indictment on national TV. That’s a lot of clout for an IRS agent. Maybe too much.

That’s certainly how it looked in 2004 when Novitzky raided Comprehensive Drug Testing, the nation’s largest sports-drug testing company. What happened on that day is complicated but boils down to this: Novitzky walked into CDT with 11 armed agents and a search warrant for the confidential test results of 10 baseball players with ties to BALCO. Hours later, he walked out with more than 4,000 medical files, including those of every major league baseball player, a bunch of NFL and NHL pros, and workers from three businesses. Maybe one that employs you.

Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky’s actions a “callous disregard” for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence, reviewed the results and received clearance from an appeals court to pursue 103 MLB players who, those records revealed, had tested positive for steroids.

…[T]hat’s the thing about running a very high-profile, very expensive federal investigation: You’re supposed to be both careful and judicious with your power. On too many occasions over the past seven years, the man leading the government’s steroids probe was neither. Case in point: After Anderson served three months in jail for dealing steroids and money laundering, Novitzky and the feds put him back in for 13 more for refusing to testify against Bonds. They also waited three years to return $41,420 of the seized $63,920, violating Anderson’s plea agreement. And most recently, they opened tax investigations on his wife and mother-in-law, neither of whom has anything to do with Bonds, to force the trainer to testify.

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