Legal Complications on Steroids

If Lance Armstrong were found to have been on drugs, and his S.F. handlers knew it, sponsors could demand their money back, and perhaps change sports in the U.S. forever

Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, was quoted as saying the situation bolstered the need to establish a protocol for retesting urine and blood samples from the previous eight years, so as to find traces of substances that might have been misused by athletes before tests to detect them had been developed.

If a Postal Service team member were shown to have doped during the past five years, the prospect for such an investigation could be particularly ominous for the Weisel sports companies where Osipow served as an executive. Starting in 2001, sponsorship agreements between the U.S. Postal Service and these companies included strong anti-drugs language under which the contracts could be thrown out if team management knew of athletes' drug use and looked the other way. Copies of the agreements I obtained had the sponsorship amounts blacked out. Press reports, however, have claimed the USPS paid out around $10 million per year during the agreement, underwriting Armstrong's Tour victories between 1999 and 2004.

The Postal Service is considered a government agency under an 1863 federal law called the False Claims Act designed to root out fraud against the government. That means that any insider who believes he has evidence that would hold up in court showing Armstrong used drugs while his team management knew yet quietly looked the other way could potentially reap a bonanza under legal provisions that give whistle-blowers a share of any lawsuit's proceeds.

"Like most cycling fans I would be reluctant to believe Lance Armstrong, or any other member of the U.S. Postal Service Team, used performance-enhancing drugs. But if that were indeed the case, and the company was aware of that at the time, the company may very well have exposure for treble damages under the False Claims Act," says Paul Scott, a former U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney in San Francisco specializing in cases involving the act.

I asked Scott, and a different False Claims Act specialist who spoke off the record, to review pages from copies of sponsorship agreements between the Postal Service and Weisel-affiliated companies. I asked them to consider an imagined scenario in which a team member was found to have improperly used drugs, the team organization knew about it, then hid it from its government sponsor.

"The default clause would seem to indicate that compliance with the drug clause was a condition of payment. If that were the case, and they violated the drug clause, and they knew about it, and they continued to solicit payment from the government with that knowledge, they may very well have a problem with the U.S. government," Scott said.

Osipow says he has confidence the L'Equipe reports will not shake the good relationship the Postal Service had with Weisel's organization.

"It's past history, and they know about the relationship they had with us at the time. It's past history. They have the utmost faith in [team manager] Johan [Bruyneel] and Lance. And they have the utmost faith in our program. And they leave it at that," Osipow says. "It was difficult news, but you have to recognize the source of the story, and the history behind it. We believe Lance. Everybody in this organization believes Lance."

Adds Postal Service spokeswoman Joyce Carrier, "Unless someone proves any differently, we have no reason to not trust what the team has told us."

In America the idea that beloved champion Lance Armstrong might have cheated is seen as a truly extraordinary allegation. This isn't so in cycling-savvy Europe, where sports headlines are routinely dominated by doping trials of athletes, doctors, trainers, and other bike-racing hangers-on.

In Europe, police raids and customs searches frequently ensnare athletes who had passed many doping tests as drug free. That's because many of drugs believed to be used by performance-seeking athletes are still undetectable with current dope-testing methods. There's a cornucopia of biotechnology-bred medicines that mimic substances that naturally occur in the body, and are therefore extremely difficult to detect. Some of these drugs have a second, shadow use in improving athletic performance. Such drugs include synthetic human growth hormone and various cutting-edge anemia drugs, which boost the body's ability to produce oxygen-carrying blood cells.

Last October, an Italian court convicted sports doctor Michelle Ferrari on doping charges after a series of SWAT-style drug raids on cyclists' hotel rooms.

According to the book Lance Armstrong's War, by Daniel Coyle, Ferrari had been known to offer choice quotes to Italian reporters such as this: "The limit is the antidoping rules; everything that is not prohibited is allowed," and "If I were a rider, I would use the products which elude doping controls if they helped to improve my performances and allowed me to compete with others."

One of the most interesting revelations in Coyle's book is the extraordinarily close, nine-year relationship between Armstrong and his personal trainer, Michelle Ferrari. Ferrari spent a week per month with Armstrong during the spring, and was with him full time during weeks leading up to the Tour. Ferrari flew with Armstrong to training camps off the coast of Africa, to Texas, to Spain, wherever the athlete was undergoing his meticulous process of training, testing, and training.

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