By: Joe Strupp
Lance Williams, one of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who received a reprieve from jail when an attorney revealed he was their confidential source on the BALCO steroid story, told E&P this afternoon the newspaper played no part in the admission, and declined to even confirm that the lawyer was the source.
“We maintained confidentiality on the source all the way through and we are still doing that, we are just not discussing it,” said Williams, who with Mark Fainaru-Wada had been found in contempt of court and faced jail for refusing to reveal their source. “What people do is what people do and we have not been released from our promise.”
Williams’ comments followed a Justice Department release late Wednesday that stated local attorney Troy Ellerman “had admitted in court papers filed today that he leaked confidential grand jury transcripts of testimony from Major League Baseball players to the San Francisco Chronicle and sought to obstruct justice.”
The release went on to state that Ellerman, 44, had agreed “to plead guilty to two counts of contempt of court, one count of obstruction of justice and one count of filing a false declaration with a federal court. Ellerman agreed to plead guilty to the four felony counts in a plea agreement filed [Wednesday] in United States District Court in San Francisco.”
The Justice Department release explained that a “previously unknown witness” who was not named had contacted the FBI with information about Ellerman’s apparent role as the Chronicle’s source.
“Since that time, the government has worked expeditiously to attempt to prove that Ellerman was the source of the leaks, which included interviewing Ellerman about the criminal conduct. On December 13, FBI agents confronted Ellerman at his home and he made admissions that could be used to prove his guilt,” the release added. “Approximately three weeks ago, Ellerman’s attorney contacted prosecutors and said that Ellerman was prepared to admit disclosing the grand jury testimony to Fainaru-Wada and to plead guilty to criminal charges. The plea agreement…is the result of negotiations over the past three weeks.”
Williams and Fainaru-Wada, who declined comment Thursday, were scheduled to make their appeal at a March 7 hearing before a federal appeals court. Williams said Thursday he had not known about Ellerman’s revelations until a television reporter contacted him on his cell phone Wednesday afternoon.
“I was buying a Valentine’s bouquet for my wife and I got that call,” he told E&P. “Of course, we are delighted we don’t have to go to prison, that is the way it looks.”
Editor Phil Bronstein, who has been an outspoken defender of his reporters, was traveling Thursday and unreachable for comment.
Williams said he and Fainaru-Wada have never asked their source to reveal himself and likely would not. “That wasn’t the deal, the deal was we won’t give you up,” he explained. “I’m not an absolutist on too many things, but on this promise that is what we do.”
He declined to comment further on whether he had spoken to his source since the latest revelations. Even the Chronicle’s story about the Ellerman disclosure did not offer any confirmation from the paper that he was the source. “I think we are not going to get into that ever,” Williams said. “We are going to just stand by our word.”
Instead, Williams stressed that this case proves even more the need for a federal shield law. Although such shield laws or related court rulings provide reporters privilege in 49 states, no such protection is in place at the federal level. Congress is continuing to review such a proposal, but no formal action has been taken that would make it law.
“We need a shield law now, no news organization should go through what we had to go through,” Williams said. “We need Congress to intervene. We’ve just got to have some rules set here to allow the press to do its job without the constant threat of subpoenas.”
Williams and Fainaru-Wada were drawn into the Justice Department investigation of steroid use back in 2004 when they first revealed portions of leaked grand jury testimony that showed Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and several track and field athletes had admitted using steroids under oath.
The reporters were eventually subpoenaed to testify about their source for the leak, but refused, prompting a federal judge to issue subpoenas. Although Williams was hopeful that the upcoming appeal would go his way, he said he had already been planning to possibly go behind bars. “It is mostly a mental thing,” he said about the jail preparation. “Trying to be at peace. I though it would be manageable, but it would be tough on my family.”