The outfit had allegedly distributed undetectable steroids and other designer drugs to some of the world's greatest athletes, including Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who is on his way to making history with a new home run record.
In 2003 the Chronicle published lurid details of the grand jury's investigation based on notes Williams and Fainaru-Wada had obtained from court transcripts leaked by an anonymous source. Bonds denied knowingly taking any steroids, but prosecutors waved in the air documents allegedly confirming his regular use of substances banned by Major League Baseball.
Furious prosecutors launched an investigation into the leak of secret grand jury transcripts. The reporters were called on to testify but refused and so joined two other reporters last year threatened with jail time for resisting subpoenas. A lawyer stepped forward last month and admitted leaking the documents, but Williams and Fainaru-Wada came dangerously close to landing in the same East Bay lockup where blogger Josh Wolf is held for refusing to cooperate with a federal grand jury.
The rash of recent attacks on reporters by federal prosecutors has First Amendment advocates up in arms. After all, no one's going to leak crucial information if the courts can simply bulldoze the anonymity that journalists grant whistleblowers. Fainaru-Wada and Williams have since inspired a bipartisan proposal in Congress to protect journalists at the federal level (dozens of states already have variations of a shield law in place).
"People roll their eyes when you start talking about the First Amendment," Fainaru-Wada said. "But the First Amendment is not about the press, it's about the public."
In addition to the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, Williams and Fainaru-Wada's coverage of the BALCO stories earned them the prestigious George Polk Award. But the story took a dark, unexpected turn last month.
Defense attorney Troy Hellerman, who represented one of the BALCO executives, pleaded guilty Feb. 15 to contempt of court and obstruction of justice charges and could serve up to two years in prison for admitting he twice allowed Fainaru-Wada to take notes from the grand jury's sealed transcripts.
Just as he was spilling details in 2004, Hellerman demanded that a judge dismiss charges against his client, complaining that the leaks prevented a fair trial. He even blamed the leaks on prosecutors. A deputy attorney general called the moves "an especially cynical abuse of our system of justice."
Media critics lashed out at Williams and Fainaru-Wada for exploiting the leaks before and after Hellerman moved for a dismissal. Among those attacking the Chron reporters were Slate editor Jack Shafer and Tim Rutten at the LA Times, who described the conduct as "sleazy and contemptible."
Williams and Fainaru-Wada today still won't discuss specifics about their sources, but Williams said without the leaks, names of the athletes involved would have otherwise been kept secret by the government even though the grand jury's original BALCO investigation was complete.
"The witnesses didn't have any expectation of privacy or secrecy of any kind," he said. "They were going to be trial witnesses. It was in that context that our reporting got under way. I am sensitive to the need of an investigative grand jury to remain secret. And I'm respectful in general of the government's secrecy concerns. But it's not the reporter's job to enforce that stuff." (G.W. Schulz)
When Oakland freelance writer and radio journalist Sarah Olson stood up to the Army by resisting a subpoena to testify in the case of Iraq war resister First Lt. Ehren Watada, she faced felony charges as well as jail time.