Cycling Probe Can't Avoid Biggest Name
Agents are engaged in a wide-ranging probe of pro cycling, people with knowledge of their work, and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong clearly appears to be, at the very least, a person of interest.
Lance Armstrong stands out in a federal investigation of cycling like a guy wearing a yellow jersey.
Agents are engaged in a wide-ranging probe of pro cycling, people with knowledge of their work have told The Associated Press, and Armstrong clearly appears to be, at the very least, a person of interest.
Authorities have obtained records of years-old doping allegations against him, contacted his sponsors and former teammate Floyd Landis has unleashed many new claims about him.
Many of the other big names in American cycling during the past 25 years, including Greg LeMond, also have been drawn in by this inquiry being led, among others, by Jeff Novitzky, who is credited with uncovering baseball's steroid era via the BALCO investigation.
A federal grand jury seated in Los Angeles, USA will decide where it goes next.
While federal authorities have not disclosed who they are scrutinizing, dozens of interviews by the AP with people involved in the case reveal a broad investigation that began with cyclists who had records of doping. It then turned toward Armstrong, who has denied using performance-enhancing drugs and has hundreds of clean doping tests as evidence.
Those on Armstrong's side appear willing to fight what has the potential to be the mother of all doping cases - an aggressive prosecution versus a defendant with millions of dollars and a tenacious, prideful streak.
Armstrong's lawyers contend the investigation is a waste of money. Armstrong himself said he would be happy to participate as long as it isn't a "witch hunt." Some people interviewed by the AP believe that Armstrong has been on investigators' radar for years. Others, however, say the evidence simply took them on a path that eventually, and without intent, brought them to Armstrong.
People familiar with the investigation said Novitzky's probe into cycling began after he was notified about a cache of performance-enhancing drugs that a landlord found in the vacated apartment of Kayle Leogrande, a little-known cyclist with a doping ban who rode for Rock Racing.
Rock Racing, owned by former rider and fashion entrepreneur Michael Ball, became the centerpiece of the probe, according to several people, none of whom wanted their names used because it could jeopardize their access to information. Messages left for Ball and Leogrande were not returned.
Then, Floyd Landis created a stir in April when he sent e-mails to cycling officials that accused ex-teammate Armstrong, along with his longtime doctor and trainer, and numerous other U.S. cyclists, of running an organized doping program earlier this decade.
That led to subpoenas, including the one handed to LeMond - a longtime Armstrong detractor - and reportedly former teammate George Hincapie. Tyler Hamilton, another cyclist tainted by positive doping tests, also is said to have received a subpoena.
Last week, Armstrong sponsors Trek Bicycle Corp. and Nike each said they had been contacted by federal investigators regarding the cycling probe and were cooperating.
Although most of Landis' accusations center on Armstrong's conduct in Europe, federal authorities still have broad areas to explore.
Investigators could consider charging cyclists with a broad range of crimes involving drug violations, fraud, conspiracy and financial wrongdoing. Armstrong's attorneys have said investigators haven't even told them if the cyclist is a target nor have they said what they are focusing on.
Armstrong lawyer Tim Herman wrote in a letter last month to the federal prosecutor that many of Landis' claims are beyond the government's jurisdiction to investigate and involve alleged acts that occurred more than five years ago and in other countries. The letter attacked the tactics of Novitzky, a Food and Drug Administration agent, whose investigation of the Bay-Area Laboratory Cooperative led to a conviction against Olympic sprinter Marion Jones and perjury charges against baseball slugger Barry Bonds.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor, said authorities will be methodical.
"If you are going after someone with the stature of Armstrong, you don't rush into this," she said. "You want to make sure you cover all your bases. It seems to me there is plenty of work to do."
She added that prosecutors are likely reviewing documents and trying to determine who they might want to testify before a grand jury. She said the doping allegations made by Landis against Armstrong and others in recent e-mails won't suffice on their own. Landis is an admitted drug cheat, stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title, who adamantly and repeatedly denied using, then decided to come clean while divulging details about Armstrong. There's no way that will play well on a witness stand.
"His words are only good as the corroboration you have for them," Levenson said. "Other than Landis, who is on the inside and can help as well? If they have another person, it would speed up the process."
It will be hard to find a cyclist, however, who doesn't have a particular slant.
For instance, LeMond has been openly critical of Armstrong, and recently said he thought Landis was telling the truth. Any cross-examination of LeMond, though, will refer to his testimony at Landis' drug hearing in 2007, in which LeMond tore into Landis after receiving threatening phone calls from his manager: "I think there's another side of Floyd that the public hasn't seen," LeMond said.
Dave Kettel, a former federal prosecutor assigned to handle organized crime and drug enforcement cases, said investigators likely will look at any e-mails, money transfers or correspondence where Armstrong or others may have lied.
If numerous people are involved, prosecutors may seek to file a conspiracy case, which Kettel said "casts a really wide net."
Elements of the potential case include any evidence against Rock Racing and at least two lawsuits involving Armstrong that featured allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs.
LeMond's attorney, Mark Handfelt, said the former Tour de France winner received a subpoena last month requesting the delivery of documents related to a lawsuit involving Trek Bicycle as well as other information regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs by current and former professional cyclists. LeMond and Trek sued each other over breach of contract and settled the dispute in February.
Handfelt said 70,000 pages of records were sent to investigators in recent weeks. The case, filed in a federal court in Minnesota, also involved others who have accused Armstrong of doping, including former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy.
The case also revealed that LeMond taped some people and included frequent backbiting. Trek President John Burke, in a deposition, said LeMond had an "absolute consumption" with Armstrong.
Prosecutors have also sought records from a dispute between Armstrong and Dallas-based SCA Promotions Inc. The company accused Armstrong of doping and refused to pay him a bonus, but the allegations were never proven. The cyclist won the case in arbitration and was awarded $7.5 million plus attorneys' fees.
Armstrong's attorneys say they have not received a subpoena, nor has his charity, Livestrong, which funds cancer research and outreach. Its finances are public records.
The fate of charges against Armstrong and any others ultimately will rest with the grand jury. The panel operates in secret - it is made up of between 16 and 23 eligible citizens whose identities are not publicly disclosed. Federal grand juries, especially those that hear detailed investigations, meet regularly over several months.
Kettel, the former federal prosecutor, said the involvement of the grand jury is a key piece of strategy for investigations.
"Oftentimes, the main reason for using the grand jury is just to lock people in," he said. "If a person's story changes later, their sworn statements before the grand jury can be used against them." He said perjury charges are unlikely in that case because they're hard to prove, but that prosecutors can still charge the person with lying to a federal official.
He said the grand jury can also be used to get potentially favorable defense witnesses on the record. Their story often changes and their grand jury testimony can be used against them at trial, Kettel said.
Once the grand jury has heard all the testimony, it will decide whether to deliver indictments.
Those familiar with the case say the decision could come as late as next year.