Feds building Lance case

2011-05-10 22:00
Lance Armstrong (File)

Los Angeles - Undeterred by the slap on the wrist a jury gave Barry Bonds, United States investigators are forging ahead in a separate drug-related case against another superstar athlete - Lance Armstrong.

In France, where Armstrong became famous for winning the Tour de France seven straight times, officials received a request from U.S. authorities last month for help gathering evidence about the cyclist and other members of his former US Postal team.

The move indicates federal authorities are looking to bolster their case against Armstrong so they can give a grand jury in Los Angeles the fullest account possible of the cyclist's actions before deciding whether Armstrong, like Bonds, also should face criminal charges related to using performance-enhancing drugs.

People familiar with the investigation said the French request has been in the works since late last year, shortly after US investigator Jeff Novitzky, prosecutor Doug Miller and other American authorities traveled to Interpol headquarters in south-central France to meet with European investigators, prosecutors and anti-doping officials from France, Belgium and Italy.

The American evidence request specifically targets US Postal and mentions Armstrong by name, said officials who have seen it. To date, federal prosecutors have called several people connected to Armstrong to testify before the grand jury, including exercise physiologist Allen Lim and Ukrainian cyclist and former Armstrong teammate Yaroslav Popovych.

Associated Press reporters in the US and Europe interviewed about a half-dozen people familiar with the case, all of whom requested their names not be used because they're not authorised to speak publicly about the investigation. The probe initially focused on the Rock Racing cycling team, then turned toward Armstrong after a former teammate, Floyd Landis, alleged Armstrong had a long-running doping system in place.

The people said the case against Armstrong, who has steadfastly denied doping and never failed a drug test, could ultimately lead to charges of fraud and conspiracy related to the alleged building of a doping program, at least part of which was said to be operating while his team received government sponsorship.

"This case isn't like Bonds and Clemens," said one person familiar with the investigation, bringing up pitcher Roger Clemens' upcoming trial on perjury charges related to alleged use of PEDs. "Those were about lying. This is about corruption to the core."

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman with the US attorney's office in Los Angeles, declined comment.

Mark Fabiani, counsel to Armstrong, criticised investigators for leaking "self-serving information."

"Persistent, inaccurate leaks can't change the facts: This inquiry has been going on for a year now, and the only result has been an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars and diversion of prosecutorial resources," Fabiani said.

The US request to the French is one of the most recent developments in the case, which has also been progressing in the United States, Italy and other European countries, with investigators seeking phone and bank records, along with statements from dozens of witnesses who have had contact with Armstrong over the years.

One official who spoke with the AP described the combined efforts as a team trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, though some skeptics have wondered aloud if it's worth the time and money to solve it.

The Bonds trial, which culminated an eight-year investigation and ended last month with a hung jury on three counts and a conviction on an obstruction of justice charge, brought out a number of critics. Among them was US Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who questions using scarce federal resources on hard-to-win cases against celebrity athletes.

"What bothers me is that you've got a very powerful federal government that has the money and time and resources to ruin someone's reputation," Kingston said at the time of the trial. He also has asked Novitzky's employer, the Food and Drug Administration, to spell out how much has been spent on the cycling probe. The federal agency has yet to provide that figure.

But if the Bonds trial and its anti-climatic closing chapter purveyed any sort of message to American investigators, it certainly had nothing to do with halting the cycling probe.

"There is a substantial investment in the investigation which makes it less likely that they'll walk away from it," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Loyola University Law School. "I don't think they would spend this time or money as a witch hunt against Lance Armstrong."

European investigators also are continuing to pursue drug cases involving some of Armstrong's associates.

In Italy, a probe into banned physician Michele Ferrari, Armstrong's former training adviser, is turning up evidence that could also be useful in the American case.

Armstrong maintains he severed professional ties with Ferrari in 2004, but an Italian law enforcement official told the AP last month that Armstrong had repeatedly met with Ferrari in recent years, including before the 2010 Tour de France. The race was Armstrong's last Tour before he retired again; he fared poorly.

Ferrari was cleared on appeal in 2006 of criminal charges accusing him of distributing doping products to athletes, but he remains barred for life by the Italian Cycling Federation. The Italian official said Armstrong's meetings with Ferrari were usually in St. Moritz, Switzerland, or Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Armstrong has since acknowledged meeting Ferrari non-professionally since severing formal ties. Italian officials have not yet received an official request to send evidence to the United States.

Asked if the Americans might be hesitant to go after Armstrong following the outcome of the Bonds case, one European law enforcement official responded, "Was (Bonds) also accused of fraud involving federal funds? ... I know Novitzky isn't the only one investigating."

In America, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the FDA are working on the case and reporting to officials from the Department of Justice, the AP was told. If criminal charges are ever brought against Armstrong, Levenson said it will have to get approval from DOJ brass.

"A Lance Armstrong (case) will go all the way up the chain," she said. "(Attorney General Eric) Holder or one of his chief deputies will sign off on the indictment or be briefed on it. They will have input even before this case gets indicted."

The U.S. investigators have requested urine samples that were taken from US Postal riders for anti-doping controls in France and were subsequently frozen and stored by France's anti-doping agency.

Among the samples requested are those from the first Tour de France that Armstrong won in 1999 and from other years when he dominated France's storied race. The French agency also has stored Armstrong's urine samples from the 2009 Tour when he placed third on his comeback, riding for the Astana team.

"All of Lance's samples were 100 percent clean when they were first given and tested," Fabiani said. "In fact, over his 20-year career, Armstrong has taken nearly 500 drug tests, in and out of competition, and never failed a single one."

Samples must be properly transferred to the United States so they'll pass muster if entered as evidence in a U.S. court proceeding. French authorities, again acting at the request of the US investigators, also are expected to interview and take witness statements from people in France.

These will include people who were connected to US Postal or who worked in French anti-doping while Armstrong was competing. Pierre Bordry, the former head of France's anti-doping agency who at times had an antagonistic relationship with Armstrong, is among those expected to talk to the French investigators acting on the US request, the AP was told.

Meanwhile, Novitzky, who also has been involved in the Bonds and Clemens cases, is insisting on the need for secrecy from the Europeans, warning that leaks could compromise the probe.

"They want the procedure to be solid," one official familiar with the case said.

"He is doing a very good job," the official added, referring to Novitzky's conduct during the probe. "When he bites, he doesn't let go."

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