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Sports Nutrition Guru Trailed by Allegations

Victor Conte Jr.'s lab has attracted top athletes. But lawsuits and angry associates are in the mix.

October 26, 2003|Glenn F. Bunting, John M. Glionna and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — With a background in music and no formal science training, Victor Conte Jr. struggled for nearly two decades to build a successful sports nutrition company that now counts baseball superstar Barry Bonds, Olympic gold medalists and middle-age weekend warriors among its disciples.

But along with endorsements from top athletes and skyrocketing sales of its most famous product, Conte's Bay Area Co-Operative Laboratories left a trail of discontented shareholders, vendors and former employees.

Critics accuse Conte, 53, of failing to honor agreements, refusing to pay debts and misleading small investors who provided start-up funds, according to a review of numerous lawsuits and other court documents.

"It seems everything he did was always on the sly," said Carl Minerva Jr., who together with his father invested in Conte's business in the early 1990s.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Sports nutrition guru -- An article in Section A on Oct. 26 reported that Carl Minerva Jr. of Burlingame said that he and his father never received any dividends on $5,000 in stock they purchased from Victor Conte Jr. and his company, Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. Conte has since supplied The Times with documents showing that the Minervas each sold their stock back to BALCO at a $1,000 profit. Also, the story incorrectly stated that Conte started SNAC Systems Inc. in 1994. The company was incorporated in 1988.

Now, Conte and Burlingame-based BALCO are at the center of a sports drug scandal that has attracted worldwide attention. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials allege that Conte's company supplied athletes with a new designer steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, that was undetectable under standard testing methods.

Federal and local law enforcement agents searched the offices of BALCO on Sept. 3, and at least 40 athletes have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in San Francisco, including Bonds, New York Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi, world-class sprinter Kelli White and welterweight boxing champion Sugar Shane Mosley.

Little is known about the grand jury, which was believed to have started hearing testimony in secret last week in the federal building here.

Internal Revenue Service agents were among those who searched BALCO's offices. And the grand jury probe comes several months after the federal government sued BALCO and another company, alleging they were paid up to $1.8 million for unnecessary tests by the Medicare program in the mid-1990s.

Conte has said the claims in the civil suit are untrue. He also has denied providing athletes with any illegal substances. His friends, family and associates said in interviews that Conte for years has condemned the use of steroids and cautioned athletes about health hazards. Conte and his attorney, Robert Holley of Sacramento, declined to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to questions submitted in writing.

Supporters say Conte was able to rise from Fresno City College student to nutrition guru by utilizing a photographic memory to master thousands of arcane medical journals and laboratory reports.

"He is highly creative [and] an extremely egotistical, self-centered individual," said Richard A. Goodman, a former bodybuilding gym proprietor who worked as a salesman and researcher at BALCO. "He is totally absorbed with his work."

From his drab corner office facing U.S. 101 near San Francisco International Airport, Conte attracted superstars who were willing to promote his company's services and products for free, a rarity in an era when athletes are paid millions of dollars to endorse sports products.

In 1988, Mac Wilkins, former world-record holder in the discus and 1984 Olympic silver medalist, told the San Mateo Times that the benefits of Conte's nutrition analysis testing "are so dramatic I'm amazed it's legal."

Bonds was quoted in the June issue of Muscle & Fitness magazine saying that, beginning in the winter of 2000, he visited BALCO's offices every three to six months to get his blood checked for zinc, magnesium and other minerals. He then would buy supplements from Conte if the tests indicated he was deficient in any of the minerals. Bonds became a proponent of Conte's biggest-selling supplement, ZMA, a combination of zinc and magnesium.

"I'm just shocked by what they've been able to do for me," Bonds said of Conte and his BALCO lab. "People don't understand how important this is."

Many employees and vendors said Conte's business style was unorthodox.

In a deposition taken last year, Conte said he avoided signing written agreements, preferring verbal settlements instead. Court records show that the one case where Conte signed an exclusive retail agreement with a national distributor lasted less than four months because of alleged breaches of contract on Conte's part.

He also was subjected to numerous federal, state and local tax liens over the years.Records of Conte's 1995 divorce in San Mateo County documented some of his financial problems. He and his wife ran up $82,105 in unpaid charges with 30 companies, most of them department stores and credit card companies. In the divorce papers, Conte blamed most of the debt on his wife's spending.

Robert Bruening, attorney for the law firm that represented Conte's ex-wife, Audrey, declined to discuss Conte in a telephone interview. "Victor Conte is not anyone we would care to get involved with in any further legal squabbles. He is a scary guy."

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