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Mary Anne Catalano, right, an assistant of assistant of Canadian Dr. Anthony Galea, and attorney Calvin Barry enter federal court in Buffalo, N.Y, on Thursday, June 24, 2010. Catalano, of Canada, accepted a plea deal on Thursday in which prosecutors agreed to drop a smuggling charge in exchange for her plea to the less serious count and her cooperation with investigators. Catalano was charged in September after U.S. border agents questioned her about vials of drugs, including human growth hormone, in her car.Doug Benz/The Associated Press

U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara had one question for Mary Anne Catalano.

"Why did you do this?" he asked.

"It's just..." Catalano began, struggling to speak. Then she began to cry.

"It was a lapse of judgment on my part," she said, wiping away tears that streamed under her glasses. "But he was my employer, and someone I'd known since I was 15 years old. So, in the end, I didn't think he would put me in this position."

In pearls and a black pant suit, Catalano cut a tiny figure in the cavernous U.S. federal court room where she stood before a judge on Thursday. But it became clear she is prepared to play a major role in a drug scandal that could further rock professional sports, by co-operating with investigators and ultimately testifying against her former employer, Dr. Anthony Galea.

With the plea bargain accepted in Buffalo, prosecutors dropped a smuggling charge against Catalano in exchange for her plea to the less serious count of lying to federal agents about why she was trying to bring human growth hormone and other banned substances into the United States.

Galea faces several serious drug and smuggling-related charges in the United States, as well as separate charges in Canada. Galea was allegedly treating athletes, including Tiger Woods, without a licence to practise in the U.S.

On Thursday, the court heard that Catalano had been helping Galea with his medical visits to the U.S. for at least two years before she was stopped trying to enter into Buffalo on Sept. 14, 2009.

She lied to customs officers at first, the court heard, by saying she was on her way to a medical conference. She said the centrifuge, syringes and drugs that she was carrying were meant for display purposes only. But several hours later, she would be giving a very different account.

The court heard that the trip was just one of many trips that Catalano, a certified athletic therapist born and raised in Toronto, and Galea made to treat professional athletes in the U.S., beginning in 2007. During those visits, athletes received two treatments in particular. One was a blood spinning technique, known as PRP. The other was injections of substances into injured areas including Actovegin, a derivative of calf's blood that is banned for use on humans in the U.S., and a cocktail of medical substances including Nutropin, a type of human growth hormone.

The athletes who allegedly received treatments were not identified in court Thursday. Outside the courtroom, Catalano's lawyer, Rodney Personius, refused to discuss the Galea case and said Catalano would not be speaking publicly.

The Buffalo court heard that the visits happened in hotel rooms and athletes' homes. The billing from a period of about two years totalled about $200,000. On one occasion, Catalano travelled to Germany to pick up Actovegin for Galea.

During all those visits, Catalano knew that he wasn't licensed to practise in the United States. She also agreed to carry his medical supplies across the border on multiple occasions, because Galea had previously had trouble with border agents at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

Since her arrest, Catalano, who is single, has quit her job at Galea's clinic in Etobicoke, Ont., and now works as an office manager at another high performance sports clinic in the Toronto area. Her Canadian lawyer, Calvin Barry, said she has had no contact with her former employer.

Personius said Catalano has travelled to Buffalo on at least four occasions since her arrest to work with investigators probing the activities of Galea.

Because of her co-operation with authorities, her maximum sentence of 18 to 24 months in prison, plus a $4,000 fine, could be reduced to no time in prison. Her sentencing is scheduled for October.

Several investigators probing the Galea case sat in the Buffalo courtroom yesterday. Afterward, one of them gave Catalano a hug.

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