Congressmen criticize baseball's drug policy; no immunity for witnesses

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress called baseball to task for its new drug-testing program Wednesday, a day before Mark McGwire and a handful of other past and present stars were to appear at a congressional hearing on steroids in the sport.

The Government Reform Committee will hear from six subpoeanaed players and commissioner Bud Selig on Thursday. The committee on Wednesday released baseball's proposed policy, which was part of hundreds of pages of documents subpoenaed.

When the new policy was announced in January, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it ''a significant breakthrough.'' But after getting his first look at the details Wednesday, he demanded it be changed.

''To do anything less than that would constitute a violation of the public's trust, a blow to the integrity of Major League Baseball, and an invitation to further scrutiny of the league's steroid policy,'' McCain said.

Echoing McCain's sentiments were Reps. Tom Davis, Henry Waxman and Cliff Stearns. Davis, R-Va., is the chairman and Waxman, D-Calif., is the ranking minority member of the committee.

The congressmen pointed in particular to the provision that allows the commissioner to substitute fines for suspensions, including $10,000 instead of a 10-day ban for a first offense. The agreement also contains a provision that testing would be ''suspended immediately'' if the government conducts an independent investigation into drug use in baseball.

Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred responded that players would be suspended in all instances for positive tests. Manfred is slated to appear with Selig at Thursday's hearing, a spectacle the sport had hoped to avoid just weeks before opening day.

Jose Canseco's request for immunity from prosecution was denied Wednesday, raising the possibility of players' invoking their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions.

''No witnesses have been or will be granted immunity,'' David Marin, a spokesman for Davis, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

But Waxman said: ''Not everything's been fully resolved.''

The flurry of activity on the eve of the highly anticipated hearing also included an agreement that two-time AL MVP Frank Thomas can testify via video conference call, and the setting of a Sept. 6 trial date in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroid-distribution case in San Francisco.

McGwire's decision to attend the hearing was revealed Wednesday by a representative of the slugger who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. McGwire was seen leaving the Government Reform Committee's office Wednesday evening.

Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling and Rafael Palmeiro also were expected to appear Thursday; Thomas had asked that he be allowed to stay in Arizona because of an ankle injury.

New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, also subpoenaed last week, was excused Tuesday from testifying because of his involvement in the ongoing federal investigation into BALCO.

Never invited to appear was another star who testified before the BALCO grand jury: Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire's season homer record and is approaching Hank Aaron's career mark.

Union head Donald Fehr, baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson and Padres general manager Kevin Towers will testify.

Canseco, who retired in 2001 with 462 homers, said he used steroids and wrote in a recent best-selling book that he injected McGwire with the drugs. The 1988 AL MVP also accused Sosa and Palmeiro of using steroids. McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro all have denied taking performance-enhancing substances.

Some players around spring training said they plan to watch the hearings live. Others, like Royals first baseman Ken Harvey, will follow news coverage.

''I want to see what questions they're going to ask,'' Harvey said. ''They keep saying it's not a witch hunt, but I think it might be.''

Said Colorado Rockies pitcher Jason Jennings: ''It's such a weird deal. Nobody really knows what is going to be asked or what the point of it is.''

Even a member of the committee wasn't sure what progress might be made Thursday.

''I'm troubled by the way we're proceeding on this — the structure and who we're bringing in,'' committee member Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y, said in a telephone interview.

''We're bringing in people who have not said they've used drugs. It was just indicated in a book. There are other people, people who've said they took steroids — like the governor of California — and I'm concerned we're not bringing them in.''

Canseco's lawyer, Robert Saunooke, said the former slugger will not be able to answer questions that would incriminate him.

''It begs the question as to what they're convening this hearing for,'' Saunooke said in a telephone interview. ''They effectively cut the legs off from underneath us.''

As an example of how immunity would limit Canseco, Saunooke brought up McGwire's repeated denials of steroid use.

''If he still holds to that lie, then the only way we can disprove that is to give specific instances and talk openly and freely,'' Saunooke said. ''If we can't do that, then our credibility is undermined.''

Witnesses turned in opening statements to the committee, and Palmeiro and Thomas both repeated their denials of steroid use.

In Canseco's statement, he charged Major League Baseball with exploiting players.

''Why did I take steroids? The answer is simple,'' he said. ''Because, myself and others had no choice if we wanted to continue playing. Because MLB did nothing to take it out of the sport.''

Howard Fendrich reported from Washington, Ronald Blum reported from New York. Associated Press Writer Elizabeth Wolfe in Washington and AP Sports Writer Steve Brisendine in Surprise, Ariz., contributed to this report.

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