Original article: Daily News
By Teri Thompson and Nathaniel Vinton

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sitting in a Thai restaurant earlier this month in San Francisco, just a few blocks from the federal courthouse where Barry Bonds goes on trial Monday, BALCO founder Victor Conte seemed more like Buddha than a boogeyman.

Almost five years have passed since Conte completed a four-month prison term for organizing the biggest and most brazen doping ring in sports history. Today, he is a Bay Area family man with a bustling nutritional supplement business to run. He works with pro and amateur athletes and helps more than a few journalists understand the vexing issue of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.

In short, he is a guru, enjoying his comeback moment amid what should be the final chapter of the eight-year BALCO saga.

"I'm happy to be back doing what I like to do, which is help athletes and be involved in the sports nutrition industry," says Conte, who has recently been driving a quarter-million-dollar Bentley around town. "Life is fun. I'm happy to be back and living a productive life."

Tomorrow, the same prosecutors who busted Conte will finally get their chance to try Bonds on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The five felony counts stem from Bonds' testimony before the grand jury that was investigating Conte and his circle in the fall of 2003. Jury selection begins tomorrow. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.

Meanwhile at Manora's Thai on Folsom, Conte was hanging out with pro boxer Nonito Donaire, a Bay Area bantamweight originally from the Philippines. Donaire and his entourage were gathered for a noodle-and-strategy session, their phones buzzing as they scheduled photo shoots and workout sessions.

"He's like a father to me," says Donaire. "He's protected me. We're like a family . . . I'm not yet at the pinnacle of my talent. Victor Conte has the key to unlock that potential."

Conte also works with Marlon Byrd, the Cubs outfielder who began working with Conte about a year before Byrd made the 2010 All-Star team and completed his best season. The collaboration hasn't pleased Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

"We've talked to him," Selig said of Byrd during a visit to spring training earlier this month. "He knows how we feel and it's not a situation that makes me very happy."

Even after seven years, Conte is still sensitive to what he perceives as unfair personal attacks on his character, especially when they come from someone as powerful as Selig. Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, was recently quoted in the San Jose Mercury News comparing Conte's working with athletes to Bernie Madoff coming out of prison and going to work for the Fed "while there's billions of dollars yet to be repaid - I think there would be an outcry."

"Redemption," Tygart added, "doesn't come for free."

Conte believes he has more than paid the price for what he calls the "smallest money-laundering case in the history of the federal government," and a conviction that amounts to "an ounce of weed and a $100 money-laundering charge."

It all began on Sept. 3, 2003, 12:41 p.m., when 26 agents and a swat team busted through the doors of Conte's business, Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC) in a Burlingame strip mall and began screaming, "Police! Police! Does anyone have any weapons?"

As a helicopter swooped in overhead (it was later determined to be from a news agency that Conte believes was alerted by the cops). At gunpoint, Conte and his partner, Jim Valente, were instructed to sit in the lobby until IRS investigator Jeff Novitzky escorted Conte to a conference room in the back of the office.

Conte said in a sworn affidavit that he was not shown a search warrant until after the raid ended and a female agent handed him a copy of the warrant and his key to the building; Novitzky claimed he showed Conte the warrant at least three times. Conte also disputed Novitzky's claims that he implicated athletes on a "list" of Conte's clients.

Conte would endure another SWAT raid - this one on Jan. 25, 2005 - that sealed his distrust of the government.

As Conte describes it, he awoke around 7 a.m. to a loud banging on his front door. As he walked from his bedroom into the living room, he saw through the front windows that armed FBI agents in flak jackets were assembled outside his house.

A female agent standing outside the window screamed, "Open the door, now!" This time, the agents were looking for evidence that Conte had leaked secret grand jury testimony from the BALCO case to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Conte had not been the leaker - it turned out that his former lawyer, Troy Ellerman, who also represented Valente, was the leaker. Ellerman, who had filed a motion to dismiss based on his assertions that the government leaked the transcripts, was imprisoned and disbarred.

Conte has been outspoken in his criticism of the Chronicle and its reporters, who refused to identify their source for leaked grand jury testimony. Conte declined to be interviewed by ESPN for a piece on Ellerman that airs Sunday.

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