Al­le­ga­tion of a dop­ing cover-up by agents ex­poses a hole in baseball’s au­thor­ity

The Idaho Statesman - - Sports - BY MICHAEL S. SCH­MIDT AND DAVID WALDSTEIN New York Times

Two years ago, lawyers for Ma­jor League Baseball sent a con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ment to the play­ers union, con­tain­ing star­tling al­le­ga­tions against two of the game’s top agents.

The doc­u­ment – a signed af­fi­davit from a man who had worked for the agents – said the agents had helped him to cover up a star player’s use of per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs and to break other union rules.

The lawyers from Ma­jor League Baseball ac­knowl­edged to the union that the for­mer em­ployee had a check­ered past – the em­ployee had gone to prison for his role dis­tribut­ing banned drugs to play­ers and he said he helped for­mer All-Star out­fielder Melky Cabr­era cover up a pos­i­tive drug test.

But MLB’s lawyers had pre­vi­ously sent the union in­for­ma­tion from oth­ers mak­ing sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tions about the same agents, Sam and Seth Levin­son. They told the union they found the for­mer em­ployee’s new claims cred­i­ble.

The play­ers’ union, which un­like MLB is em­pow­ered to po­lice agents, ini­tially ac­knowl­edged that the al­le­ga­tions were se­ri­ous, and pledged to in­ves­ti­gate.

But since then, the union has failed to in­ter­view ei­ther the for­mer em­ployee, Juan Car­los Nuñez, or oth­ers he said could cor­rob­o­rate his claims. Nor has it fol­lowed through on a prom­ise to pro­vide the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice with any de­tails about its pre­vi­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the agents.

The dis­pute has been a source of deep frus­tra­tion for Ma­jor League Baseball, which sees the union as un­will­ing to work with the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice on many fronts. And it has ex­posed a gap in base-

ball’s drug test­ing pro­gram, which is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered among the strictest in sports: MLB has no power to reg­u­late the agents who work in the game or to pun­ish any who may fa­cil­i­tate per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug use by their clients. Only the play­ers and their union can do that.

The union and its head, for­mer player Tony Clark, de­clined sev­eral re­quests for com­ment. Clark said Thurs­day that the union as a rule does not com­ment on in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

But its ap­par­ent un­will­ing­ness to hold the Levin­sons and their agency, ACES, to ac­count has also caused re­sent­ment among other agents, many of whom have pri­vately ex­pressed dis­may that the play­ers union failed to fully in­ves­ti­gate the ac­cu­sa­tions against the Levin­sons, and con­tend the union has shown fa­voritism to­ward them.

Nuñez, the for­mer em­ployee, in Fe­bru­ary sued the Levin­sons, who dis­pute all the claims he has made against them and con­tinue to rep­re­sent star play­ers. But MLB con­tin­ues to be­lieve Nuñez is telling the truth.

“Ma­jor League Baseball turned over the in­for­ma­tion from Mr. Nuñez re­gard­ing the Levin­sons’ al­leged con­duct to the MLBPA be­cause it is the union’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to reg­u­late agents,” the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice said in a state­ment. “De­spite nu­mer­ous re­quests, MLB was dis­ap­pointed it was not given the terms of what­ever settlement that was reached be­tween the MLBPA and the Levin­sons, and MLB be­came aware that the Levin­sons would be al­lowed to con­tinue to rep­re­sent play­ers.”

In a state­ment, the Levin­sons called Nuñez a “liar and con­victed felon,” and said they had no knowl­edge of his crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties, and that Nuñez’s af­fi­davit to MLB mir­rors the “base­less claims he raised in his law­suit.”

“As for MLB,” the state­ment con­tin­ued, “they have op­posed a strong union and our ad­vo­cacy for play­ers’ rights for decades, so it is un­for­tu­nate but not sur­pris­ing that they have found it con­ve­nient to jump on Nuñez’s band­wagon.”

Club own­ers have an in­her­ently ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship with agents, whose duty is to ex­tract as much money as pos­si­ble from teams for their clients. But the past two baseball com­mis­sion­ers, Bud Selig and Rob Man­fred, were so trou­bled by the re­peated al­le­ga­tions by for­mer as­so­ci­ates against the Levin­sons that they took the un­usual step – at least three times in the past six years – of pro­vid­ing the union with in­for­ma­tion ty­ing the Levin­sons to their play­ers’ use of banned drugs.

In 2012, Nuñez, then an em­ployee of the Levin­sons, took the blame for fa­cil­i­tat­ing Cabr­era’s drug use and try­ing to cover it up. Cabr­era was sus­pended for 50 games, and the union barred Nuñez from be­ing an agent for life. He spent three months in prison for his role in re­fer­ring play­ers to a South Florida clinic, Bio­gen­e­sis, that pro­vided ath­letes with per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs.

But af­ter his re­lease in 2015, Nuñez went to Ma­jor League Baseball and said he took the blame for the Cabr­era sit­u­a­tion in ex­change for a pay­ment from ACES he never ac­cepted, and he said that now he wanted to tell the truth. Be­fore MLB took Nuñez’s af­fi­davit, it had one of its out­side lawyers, Andrew Levi, in­ves­ti­gate Nuñez’s claims.

In an in­ter­view last week, Levi said he found Nuñez to be “com­pletely cred­i­ble.”

In De­cem­ber 2015, Nuñez pro­vided a sworn af­fi­davit to MLB in which he as­serted that the Levin­sons had di­rected him through each stage of the Cabr­era cover-up, and he gave the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence that he said backed up his claims. (The Levin­sons con­tended “the pho­to­graphs are doc­tored and, like Nuñez him­self, can­not be trusted.”)

In the af­fi­davit, Nuñez also told in­ves­ti­ga­tors of how the Levin­sons di­rected him to make pay­ments of close to $50,000 to fam­ily mem­bers and friends of pitcher Fer­nando Rod­ney from 2010 to 2012 to per­suade Rod­ney to stay with ACES at a time the pitcher was threat­en­ing to leave the agency. Those pay­ments would be a vi­o­la­tion of union rules.

The Levin­sons said the only pay­ment they made was for train­ing and trans­porta­tion – which are al­lowed un­der union rules – and not as an in­duce­ment to keep Rod­ney as a client.

The union had in­ves­ti­gated the Levin­sons twice be­fore for their role in play­ers’ drug use, and each time it cleared the agents. Af­ter the sec­ond in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the union said the Levin­sons – and Nez Balelo, an­other agent who was also in­ves­ti­gated over sim­i­lar claims sur­round­ing Ryan Braun’s pos­i­tive drug test and cover-up in 2011 – all re­mained in “good stand­ing.” But it had never talked to Nuñez, and it re­fused to share any of the de­tails of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion with MLB, an­ger­ing the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice.

Nuñez had de­clined to co­op­er­ate with union in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­cause he was fac­ing crim­i­nal charges at the time. Af­ter MLB for­warded his new af­fi­davit to the play­ers as­so­ci­a­tion in 2016, the union ac­knowl­edged the se­ri­ous­ness of the charges and promised to in­ves­ti­gate the Levin­sons again.

“Given the se­ri­ous­ness of the al­le­ga­tions made in the af­fi­davit, we will be in­ves­ti­gat­ing this mat­ter fur­ther un­der the MLBPA Agent Reg­u­la­tions and we aim to do so in a timely fash­ion,” the union’s gen­eral coun­sel, David Prouty, said in a let­ter to MLB in 2016.

The union then told Nuñez’s lawyers it wanted to speak with him but un­der cer­tain con­di­tions, in­clud­ing its in­sis­tence that he sign a nondis­clo­sure agree­ment. Af­ter some ne­go­ti­a­tions about the length of the pro­posed agree­ment Nuñez re­fused to sign it.

On July 27, 2017, an at­tor­ney for the union told Nuñez’s lawyer it “has de­cided not to meet with Mr. Nuñez at this time.”

GENE J. PUSKAR AP file

For­mer All-Star Melky Cabr­era was sus­pended for 50 games af­ter fail­ing a dop­ing test in 2012, when he was with the San Fran­cisco Giants.

Invision file photo via AP

MLB’s lawyers sent the play­ers union in­for­ma­tion about al­le­ga­tions against agents Sam Levin­son, left, and Seth Levin­son.

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