Hardball: When Major League Baseball investigators came to town

10/05/2013 6:47 PM

10/06/2013 5:45 PM

They banged on doors, slipped through guard gates and flashed envelopes stuffed with cash. They hired a peddler of performance enhancing substances, paid for stolen documents and canoodled with a potential witness.

Major League Baseball’s sleuths, most of them former New York City cops, were described by one witness as “goons” with “big muscles” who bullied their way across South Florida in a quest to nail players involved in baseball’s biggest doping scandal.

In their zeal to clean up the sport, MLB investigators have been accused of discarding the rulebook much like the juiced-up ballplayers they were pursuing.

As New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez tries to salvage his career and sullied reputation — the appeal of his 211-game drug suspension was heard this past week in New York — his spare-no-expense legal team has hammered away at the integrity of MLB’s case by accusing baseball’s investigators of “despicable, unethical and possibly illegal” tactics. In their latest gambit, they filed suit last Thursday, alleging MLB waged a vendetta against Rodriguez, its highest-paid player.

Rodriguez, considered a repeat offender of baseball’s steroid prohibition, and others claim MLB’s tactics included filing a “sham” lawsuit against a slew of people who have never donned a major league uniform, masquerading as cops, friends or process servers to gain access to would-be witnesses, and, allegedly, purchasing private medical records that had been stolen in a parking lot smash-and-grab.

“Even if the players broke the rules by using PEDs, that does not excuse baseball’s misconduct,” said Miami attorney Jeffrey R. Sonn, who represents Rodriguez’s cousin, Yuri Sucart. “If you threaten witnesses and offer bribes to cooperate, it trashes the game just as bad as what they say the players are doing.”

Sucart, 51, who lives in South Miami, is on the list of clients of Biogenesis of America, the now-closed Coral Gables anti-aging clinic run that provided professional and high school athletes alike with performance-enhancing drug concoctions. That, plus Sucart’s family connection to Rodriguez and his link to a previous PED episode involving the third baseman, put him on the radar of baseball investigators.

Anthony Bosch, who founded Biogenesis, was a much bigger fish. The 50-year-old, who led people to believe he was a doctor but wasn’t one, initially denied he supplied any athletes with steroids, then changed his story and is now working on MLB’s team. In exchange for his help, MLB promised to pay him an undisclosed sum of money — Rodriguez’s suit claims it is up to $5 million, in monthly installments — to cover his legal fees and other expenses.

It also pledged to put in a good word for him with criminal prosecutors investigating the clinic.

Bosch’s cooperation, buttressed by documents and other evidence MLB purchased or otherwise collected, led Commissioner Bud Selig to suspend more than a dozen players, including two former Most Valuable Players: Rodriguez and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. The players all accepted their penalties except Rodriguez, whose 211-game ban was the harshest punishment. After hearing evidence last week, an arbitrator will decide whether the ban stands.

In the midst of the arbitration hearing last week, Rodriguez sued Major League Baseball, claiming it conspired to ruin him.

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney declined to comment for this story, citing the league’s confidentiality rules and a court-imposed gag order. But in the past, MLB officials have defended their aggressive strategy.

“Those who complain about our tactics are really upset about our effectiveness,” Courtney told The New York Times in July.

Money, power and muscle

Under Selig’s 20-year reign, baseball profits have soared from $1.2 billion to almost $8 billion a year. Critics argue that baseball’s previous see-no-evil approach to steroid use helped the game — and its owners — recover from labor strife that prompted a 1994-95 shutdown of the game. After the sport resumed play, steroid-fueled sluggers shattered home run records, bringing fans back to the ballpark.

The landscape shifted in 2007, with the release of the Mitchell Report, an investigation commissioned by Selig that detailed the game’s pervasive doping problem. In the aftermath, Selig created an investigations division and negotiated a new labor contract containing a tough drug-testing program. With the new PED testing regimen in place, Selig declared an end to the game’s steroid era, hoping to seal his legacy as the man who cleaned up baseball.

Then the Biogenesis scandal exploded. Selig and baseball faced a public relations mess after the Miami New Times ran a story earlier this year naming nearly 20 ballplayers who were allegedly Bosch’s clients at Biogenesis and a previous incarnation, Biokem. The commissioner dispatched his investigative team, headed by Dan Mullin, a 23-year veteran New York City cop, along with a brigade of investigators, to South Florida to show that baseball was on top of its latest PED problem.

Mullin, 55, faced a daunting challenge: Prove that players were taking banned substances even though they had not tested positive.

Without the legal power to force ballplayers to talk, MLB hatched a plan: In March, they filed a civil lawsuit against Bosch and his associates, saying they had interfered with baseball’s drug prevention and treatment program. That allowed them to pump the defendants under oath for information that would implicate the players.

As information was gathered, “sources close to baseball” selectively leaked various nuggets to the New York tabloids and ESPN.

When Bosch agreed to cooperate, he was dropped as a defendant.

Among others named as defendants was 29-year-old Marcelo Albir. Albir, who is on the Biogenesis client list, was a University of Miami ballplayer about eight years ago. More importantly, he roomed with Braun while they were UM teammates. In February 2012, Braun had had challenged a positive drug test and won.

MLB alleged in the suit, without providing further detail, that Albir was a conduit between Biogenesis, Braun and other players. They wanted him to talk. They left repeated messages containing threats of possible law enforcement involvement if he didn’t cooperate. They offered him money, visited his father’s business unannounced and, finally, used a ruse to get past the security gate at Albir’s Brickell Key apartment complex, pretending to be serving official legal papers.

“Major League Baseball’s tactics and threats of law enforcement involvement for its collateral purpose cannot be justified under any circumstances,” said John Lukacs Sr., Albir’s lawyer.

Lukacs said Albir did not supply PEDs to anyone. Albir would not talk directly to the Herald.

Such investigative tactics are examples of what investigators should not do, according to longtime professionals.

“They can’t misrepresent who they are working for,” said Rory J. McMahon, a founding member of the Florida Association of Licensed investigators.

“If the person says they have no interest in answering, it should stop there. If you continue to call them repeatedly that’s stepping over the line.”

Added Joe Matthews, a retired Miami Beach homicide detective who is now a private investigator: “You don’t have to threaten or stalk people.”

Intimate with witness

Former UM pitching coach Lazaro “Lazer” Collazo told a similar story about his dealings with MLB investigators.

They appeared at his home about 9:30 p.m. on April 4. Collazo, a longtime South Florida baseball instructor, alleged in court papers that MLB investigator Neil Boland and MLB lawyer Patrick Houlihan used “intimidation, harassment, coercion, embarrassment” when they questioned Collazo that evening, frightening his wife and 9-year-old daughter.

“They just kept telling me ‘you’re not telling us the truth’ and ‘we are going to have to go to the newspaper and other media,” Collazo said in an interview with the Herald. Collazo felt vulnerable because he had been a patient of the Biogenesis (“I had been getting tired a lot and needed a boost”) and coaching opportunities might dry up if publicly tied to a PED clinic. Also, two of his sons were listed among the clinic’s clients.

“They said ‘we don’t want to involve your family’ and if you’re not telling us the truth they said they would make it hard on me and my family,” Collazo recalled.

The next day, Collazo was on jury duty. “They called me seven, eight times,” he said, adding that they left “threatening” messages.

Boland and Houlihan later signed sworn court affidavits saying that neither of them witnessed the other exhibiting aggressive or intimidating tactics with Collazo, who runs a private youth baseball program.

“They are bullies and bullied the little people,” said lawyer Martin Beguiristain, who represents another defendant, former Bosch associate Carlos Acevedo, who says he was harassed. “They were banging on his door as if they were the federal government.”

MLB has denied doing anything improper.

In the course of ferreting out more information, one of baseball’s investigators developed a romantic relationship with a Biogenesis nurse. Rodriguez’s lawsuit identifies the investigator as Dan Mullin. The woman, who according to her Facebook page now works at Mount Sinai Hospital, did not return several messages left by the Herald. She also did not answer the door at her home.

‘We’ll give you money!’

The man responsible for blowing the whistle on Rodriguez and other players also claims he was badgered and shadowed by MLB’s investigative team.

MLB investigators showed up at Porter Fischer’s doorstep, beginning in February. Fischer, a Biogenesis investor who had taken the clinic records and leaked them to New Times amid a financial dispute with Bosch, told the Herald: “I didn’t want to discuss anything with them, but they kept hounding me almost every day, telling me I was in danger and offering me money,”

His sister, Suzanne, concurred, telling ESPN that several “goons” with “big muscles” pounded on the door to the home they shared with their mother, shouting “We’ll give you money!”

Then things turned darker. On Feb 19, Fischer noticed he was being tailed as he was driving in Pinecrest. He sped off, with a car close behind. Police were called, and by the time they caught up with the tail, Fischer had switched cars with a friend, Pete Carbone. The men in the tail car were private investigators, a police report said. They would not say who they worked for and claimed they were after Carbone, not Fischer, because Carbone had instigated a fight with them.

In a brief subsequent interview with the Herald, one of the investigators would only say about his clients: “Be very careful. These are very, very bad people.”

In March, when a frustrated Fischer finally decided to meet with MLB investigators, they gave him $5,000 in cash as a show of good faith. Later, they offered as much as $125,000 for the clinic’s records, Fischer said. They told Fischer they would hire him as a consultant and wanted him to sign a confidentiality agreement, but he declined.

Two days later, on March 24, while he was transporting a cache of Biogenesis documents, Fischer’s car was broken into outside a Boca Raton tanning salon. Fischer, who was inside getting a tan, said several boxes of the clinic’s files — mostly patient medical records — were removed from his trunk, as was a handgun, laptop and a gym bag containing $800. He filed a report with Boca Raton police, who have since closed the case without making an arrest.

MLB officials deny they had anything to do with the theft, but admit that they subsequently paid $5,000 to a third party for some records from the clinic. Rodriguez’s suit claims that the seller made clear the records had been taken in the smash-and-grab of Fischer’s car.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has convened a grand jury as part of a federal probe into the steroid scandal, and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office opened a separate inquiry last month. Subpoenas were issued by Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Samft last month.

“This is going to make a lot of people start sweating now,” said former Miami federal prosecutor David Weinstein, who is not involved in the case. “This was baseball’s dirty little secret. Now someone else is looking at their dirty little secret.”

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this story.

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