Lance Armstrong and His Accusers: Processing the Unthinkable

Lance Armstrong, flanked by two guys accusing him of nothing. Yet.
Lance Armstrong, flanked by two guys accusing him of nothing. Yet.

During Lance Armstrong's recent comeback, the Voice kept a fairly close eye on him. Despite what some commenters seemed to believe, we actually have admired the man and his incredible cycling exploits.

For years, of course, Armstrong has been dogged by accusations of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs. In particular, I have for years heard from my colleague Matt Smith, who is SF Weekly's news columnist and a former professional cyclist, that Armstrong was dirty and that because he had been sponsored by a federal agency, the U.S. Postal Service, it would make him vulnerable to exhaustive investigations.

Over the last several years, I have generally maintained confidence in Armstrong's record of negative drug tests. Smith, meanwhile, has always assured me that Armstrong's doomsday was coming.

Over the past few days, the public has heard accusations against Armstrong made by former teammate Tyler Hamilton -- a man whose credibility has been shot for years.

But then came news that another former Armstrong teammate, a man who has never tested positive for drug use, George Hincapie, has also testified to a grand jury that he and Armstrong shot up substances such as EPO, the blood-doping drug.

Stunned, devastated, I knew there was only one thing I could do. I had to e-mail Matt Smith and literally ask him how I should think about this information. I've put together our ensuing e-mails in the following correspondence with minimal editing.

Tony: You always told me this day was coming. I am not processing it well. I wonder if we had an e-mail or IM exchange about it, it would help me put things in perspective. It's not what Hamilton says that bothers me, I have no confidence in anything that guy says.

Matt: I think Hamilton's latest statements are at least as credible as the ones Hincapie supposedly made. He had every reason to lie before, and pretty much no reason to lie now. The idea he'd lie about this, and give back his gold medal, all for a book that doesn't yet exist, is far-fetched. The idea he'd fabricate statements to a grand jury when his deal with prosecutors fall apart if his story does, is even more so.

I still wouldn't believe him if he told me my pants were on fire and I could smell smoke. Hincapie, on the other hand, is another matter.

Well, it's no surprise he didn't want to serve time for lying before a grand jury. Not surprising Tyler didn't either. But some interesting things did come out that weren't emphasized as much as those two revelations.

First, there's the supposed UCI bribe regarding the Tour de Suisse matter. Armstrong gives $125,000 to the UCI, and Hamilton says it was to pay off the UCI for covering up a positive drug result at the Tour of Switzerland. This is a fat stinking deal that goes beyond cycling to strike all Olympic Sport, as the UCI and the Beijing Olympics have a key personnel connection: The previous president of the UCI, Hein Vergruggen, was chairman of the Coordination Commission for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. So, like, only one bribe for $125,000 was taken to clean up one measly drug test, and nothing sleazy went down in elevating Chinas's global status via the Olympics? Perhaps.

Another interesting facet was the Pre-Lance Armstrong era Tyler described on U S. Postal when riders got white lunch bags with doping products inside. He said he got them from a team doctor. But during the late 1990s, San Francisco's Thom Weisel owned and oversaw the team as a personal hobby. Note that the CBS story said that the U.S. investigation is going after team management, not individual riders, and then featured a picture of [former USPS team director] Johan Bruyneel. The Wall Street Journal also noted that investigation insiders say that they're are after management, not riders.

Something tells me that the U.S. could give not a shit about prosecuting Bruyneel, which would require extradition, international international pooh-pooing , and a minnow among the U.S. public. Weisel, however, would seem like a more inviting target.

The column I wrote a few years ago was the first one that noted that there may be fraud against the federal government here, making the USPS case unique among doping cases, because these dopers may have actually done something illegal, whereas doping in baseball doesn't really constitute a crime. Well, the contracts between Tailwind Sports and USPS used Weisel's office as the company address. In 2002 the contracts began including a severability clause that basically said team-management-overseen doping gives the right for the government to stop spending millions of dollars. But given the language of the contract, only team management could commit the fraud.

Weisel, who likewise isn't as famous as Armstrong, is a really, really big financier locally. Weisel's firm was involved in one of the financial research cases Eliot Spitzer settled before his downfall. There's always the possibility others seem him as a scumbag. So that's the shoe I'm waiting to drop.

Additionally, this may not be the first Olympic gold medalist with potential connections to this whole affair. 1984 track gold medalist Mark Gorski was team manager during what Hamilton alleges to be the goodie-bag years.

As far as the next shoe to drop, recall that Gerolsteiner team boss Hans-Michael Holczer implicated [Levi] Leipheimer in appearing to have doped... I wonder if he's talking.

Thank you for this, Matt. But let me back up: with the Hincapie news, what are the possible outcomes for Armstrong?

As far as outcomes, speaker-fee wise the 60 Minutes piece has gotta suck. But square one regarding legal outcomes is, in the United States doping is not a crime.

So you have to look at trafficking, fraud, perjury traps, acting as a physician without a license, endangering public health, conspiracy to do any of these, and maybe criminal or civil theories I didn't think of. If Hincapie told the Grand Jury that Armstrong supplied him with drugs, which the CBS report seems to suggest he did, you have corroboration of Hamilton's direct statement that Armstrong connected him with drugs, ergo trafficked. If Hincapie can corroborate that Armstrong actually dosed athletes himself, and coordinated other athletes' blood transfusions, as Hamilton claims, you've got potential issues of practicing medicine without a license.

Separately, if investigators and prosecutors can show that Armstrong counted as "team management," possibly by demonstrating controlling ownership in or influence over Tailwind Sports, then they can connect that to USPS sponsorship contract clauses inserted beginning in 2002 allowing the government to stop paying money to the team in the event of management-approved doping, and claim Armstrong was the ringleader of fraud conspiracy. Note Armstrong's seemingly opaque statement last July that he was a minority owner of Tailwind, then follow-up stories in the press showing he had said something different under oath about his ownership stake during the SCA insurance arbitration case. The reason for publicly airing such obscure details could have to do with the crucial nature of the Tailwind ownership issue for speculating about who can, and cannot, be prosecuted for fraud.

Perjury-trap-wise, Hincapie's statements have the appearance of being just another log on the fire. With a jury I don't think his credibility would be all that much different than Landis or Hamilton's. He may have been be a pristine hero in the eyes of the world last week. But if 60 Minutes is correct, he supposedly admitted to getting rich and famous by using drugs and lying about it, and all that could potentially go before a jury.

Another interesting thing: Hincapie was hired by USPS in 1997. This was before Armstrong hired Johan Bruyneel to run the show, and it was back when the team was more of a personal hobby of Thom Weisel and less of a corporate concern run by Armstrong's Austin lawyers and sports management company. If Hincapie corroborates Hamilton's "white lunch bag" assertion, it would suggest a team-wide doping conspiracy preceded Armstrong.

If investigators/prosecutors pin this down, it gives you another interesting New York angle: Eliot Spitzer tried to nail Weisel for research fraud; Weisel played hardball and was the last of the various accused financial firms to settle.

Notwithstanding, as ruinous as the 60 Minutes was of Armstrong's reputation, it only circled around the issue of criminal liability without addressing it.

But is it really ruinous of his reputation? For years now Armstrong has inhabited an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, space as sports hero and celebrity. He is the 7-time champion of the Tour de France. Cyclists (like you) and cycling fans (like me) know what that means, but do most Americans? Champion of a sport most Americans hardly know, Armstrong became a bankable star at least as much for his cancer survival, cancer advocacy, and somewhat bad-boy persona as for any European trophies he owns. A couple of years ago, his reputation was supposed to have been ruined by how many women he was being attached to. But even though his relationship with Sheryl Crow ended in embarrassing fashion, and rumors swirled about an Olsen twin, and his family grew even though he wasn't married, none of it really seemed to diminish his capacity to sell low-carb beer. There is no Hall of Fame Armstrong can be kept out of -- the death penalty for doping baseball players, as it were -- and you seem to indicate that Armstrong's chances of facing either criminal or civil charges might be slim. If this is just an attempt to ruin his reputation, isn't it possible that Lance is simply too big to fail? Also, I imagine the French media is going wild over all of this. But does ASO start stripping Lance of Tour de France titles? Hasn't it shown itself to be reluctant to do that when so much time has passed?

It's hard to know at this point whether Armstrong will be prosecuted. But I mentioned the 60 Minutes story to a colleague here, and he didn't really know what I was talking about. So it's possible Armstrong could brazen it out on pure popular ignorance. However, someone with knowledge of the investigation seems to be leaking. And if government agents are looking at financial transaction data, phone data, lab records, travel data, all while subpoenaing and flipping people involved in Lance's circle, and if that stuff starts to leak, I think it will have an effect on public perception as the drip, drip, drip becomes louder. Perhaps more important, the fog of fear Armstrong has created around the sport might dissipate as more evidence and people come forward. And less fear might mean more public statements impugning Lance Armstrong.

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