WASHINGTON - The prosecutor’s words were delivered in the matter known as “The United States of America vs. Miguel O. Tejada,” spoken during Thursday’s 23-minute hearing in which the Houston Astros shortstop was sentenced to one year of probation for misleading Congress.
The message — famous or not, you must tell the truth — also could be interpreted as a warning to another baseball star, Roger Clemens. His case, involving sworn testimony to the House of Representatives, is currently before a grand jury in the very same federal courthouse where Tejada appeared.
“People have to know that when Congress asks questions, it’s serious business,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Durham told the court. “And if you don’t tell the truth — and we can prove you haven’t told the truth — then there will be accountability.”
Congress referred Tejada to the Justice Department in January 2008, a little more than a year before it asked that Clemens be investigated to determine whether he lied when saying he never used performance-enhancing drugs.
Tejada was the All-Star sitting in court this day, his chin resting on his right hand while Durham talked. Tejada was the past American League MVP receiving his punishment after pleading guilty last month and admitting he withheld information about an ex-teammate’s use of performance-enhancing drugs when questioned in 2005 by congressional investigators.
“I take full responsibility for not answering the question,” Tejada told U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay.
Standing at a lectern facing Kay, Tejada spoke softly for less than a minute, the talented hands he normally uses to grip a bat or field ground balls stuffed in the pant pockets of his pinstriped, three-piece suit.
He apologized to Congress, to the court, to baseball fans — “especially the kids” — and added: “I learned a very important lesson.”
Tejada is the first high-profile player convicted of a crime stemming from baseball’s steroids era.
“What people are not entitled to do, your honor, is to provide untruthful or dishonest answers. No one has that right,” Durham told the court. “Not the people who are well-known — and not the people who are unknown.”
Tejada faced up to a year imprisonment and a fine up to $100,000. But Kay followed the recommendation of prosecutors who said he deserved a lighter punishment, issuing a sentence of probation, 100 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine. Kay waived drug testing often required of other convicts on probation and said he wouldn’t restrict the player’s travel.
The plea deal is unlikely to affect Tejada’s immigration status because green card-holders are not normally deportable unless the maximum possible sentence is more than one year in prison.
It was noted that the fine should not be a hardship for Tejada, entering the final season of a $72 million, six-year contract with the Astros.
“I have no doubt of your sincerity, that you regret your actions,” Kay told Tejada. “I commend you to follow the rules and conditions that have been set by the court and make sure you don’t get in trouble again.”
Mark Tuohey, one of three lawyers accompanying Tejada, told the court: “He realizes that in his profession he is, among other things, a role model.”
Tejada has acknowledged he bought human growth hormone while playing for the Oakland Athletics, but said he threw the drugs away without using them, and prosecutors said during his February plea hearing they had no evidence to contradict that.
Tejada’s case has its roots in the March 17, 2005, congressional hearings on steroids in baseball at which Mark McGwire refused “to talk about the past,” and Rafael Palmeiro — then Tejada’s teammate with the Baltimore Orioles — jutted a finger toward lawmakers and denied using drugs.
Palmeiro was suspended by baseball later that year after failing a drug test. That House panel looked into whether Palmeiro should be investigated for perjury; he said the positive test must have been caused by a tainted B-12 vitamin injection given to him by Tejada.
That led investigators to Tejada, who was questioned at a Baltimore hotel. He was not under oath, but court documents say he was advised “of the importance of providing truthful answers.”
“If Congress or a representative of Congress asks somebody a question in their official capacity, that question must be answered truthfully. There are no options to prevaricate or withhold the truth or parts of the truth,” Durham said Thursday.
“Sometimes the truth is quite unflattering,” the prosecutor noted. “Sometimes it’s embarrassing to people. But it is not optional.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
That all led to Thursday.
Tejada flew to Washington from Florida on Wednesday night, leaving his team’s spring training camp long enough to spend 1½ hours in a courthouse. The Astros had a day off Thursday, so Tejada didn’t miss an exhibition game or even a workout.
“We’re happy that this issue is resolved,” Astros general manager Ed Wade said in a statement issued by the team. “Miguel can now focus on baseball and direct all of his energy toward being a key member of the Astros. It was resolved the way Miguel and his representatives believed it would be, and we can now all move forward.”
Tejada is batting .257 with one homer and three RBIs in 35 at-bats for the Astros in Grapefruit League action. He also played for the Dominican Republic team that flopped in the World Baseball Classic with a surprising first-round exit.
Tejada didn’t stop to take questions on his way out Thursday, saying only, “Yes,” when a reporter asked if he was relieved.
“He’s looking forward,” Tuohey said, “to playing ball.”
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