Lance Armstrong's decision to appear on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network on Thursday and confess that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career has precipitated a cascade of potential legal consequences.
Winfrey has confirmed, ahead of this week's two-part broadcast of her encounter with Armstrong, that the disgraced former racer has made some admission of the doping offences that saw the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) strip him of his titles in October.
With several lawsuits outstanding against him, Armstrong is reported to be in negotiations with the US Justice Department about possibly testifying against former confederates in what the Usada report called the "most sophisticated doping programme sport has ever seen". Justice Department officials have recommended that the federal government join the "whistleblower" lawsuit launched by Armstrong's former team-mate Floyd Landis. This "qui tam" suit alleges that Armstrong and his associates effectively defrauded US taxpayers by dope-cheating while sponsored by the US Postal Service (to the tune of at least $30m over five years, and possibly as much as $50m).
The New York Times reports that Armstrong is not only attempting to negotiate a settlement to return a portion of those millions, but may also give testimony for the plaintiffs in the whistleblower lawsuit. Because Tailwind Sports was the company formed to manage the USPS team, several of Armstrong's most loyal and long-time supporters could be drawn into the case. According to Bloomberg Business Week, investment banker Thomas Weisel has already been subpoenaed.
Other former directors of Tailwind include Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton, and his business partner, Bart Knaggs, both of whom also occupy key positions at Livestrong, the cancer charity Armstrong founded after being declared cancer-free in 1997. Stapleton remains the linchpin of Armstrong's inner circle, and he and Knaggs would be key to Armstrong's ability, after an Oprah-led rehabilitation, to return to a more active role at the Livestrong Foundation.
As well as his negotiations with authorities over the tam qui suit, Armstrong is also reported to be willing to testify to Usada against officials of the UCI, cycling's governing body. In return for his co-operation, Usada would use its discretion to reduce his lifetime ban from Olympic competition.
So, with Armstrong poised to confess and the Department of Justice expected to be a player in the "whistleblower" lawsuit, who among his associates and former confederates are most likely to be affected by the fallout? Here is the shortlist:
Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid
Dutch sports administrator Verbruggen, pictured, was president of the International Cycling Union (UCI) from 1991 until 2005 – a period that coincided with pro cycling's worst problems with EPO and blood-doping, and all the other illicit performance-enhancing techniques described in detail by Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and in the Usada report. After his retirement, Verbruggen remained honorary president, even as he was succeeded in the top job by Pat McQuaid. Verbruggen is also an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee.
While Pat McQuaid initially made advances in anti-doping after he took over direction of the UCI – under his tenure, the "biological passport" was introduced – he has since chosen a path of loyalty to Verbruggen and the ancien régime at the UCI. Tensions ran high during Usada's report on the Armstrong scandal: Usada chief executive Travis Tygart publicly criticised the UCI for its lack of co-operation with his investigation, and for failing to tackle the problem of doping in the sport.
Usada's report repeated the allegations of Landis and Hamilton: that Armstrong had admitted to each of them that he had failed an EPO test during the Tour de Suisse in 2001. In their versions, Armstrong told them that Verbruggen had helped hush up the problem and helped arrange a meeting between Armstrong, Bruyneel and the laboratory director, Martial Saugy, to explain the test. Saugy confirms that a meeting took place, but denies that he told Armstrong and Bruyneel how to cheat the test. Verbruggen and McQuaid, pictured, strenuously deny that the UCI was involved in any cover-up.
Armstrong later made two donations, totalling about $200,000, to the UCI for anti-doping purposes. Verbruggen and McQuaid deny that there was any connection between the 2001 "suspicious test" reported by Usada and Armstrong's giving. Whether Armstrong has a different story to tell now must be pricking Travis Tygart's curiosity. The UCI is conducting its own inquiry, by an independent panel, into the body's conduct over the Armstrong era – and specifically into these allegations of corruption. That commission could be trumped if any UCI officials were to be incriminated by Armstrong in witness statements to Usada – with potentially seismic consequences for the governance of the sport.
A former cycling professional himself, Bruyneel, pictured, managed all of Armstrong's Tour-winning teams – making him the most successful directeur sportif in cycling history. Bruyneel was also a director of Tailwind Sports, but the most immediate problem he faces is a lifetime ban from the sport for his role in the USPS and Discovery Channel teams' systematic doping uncovered in Usada's "Reasoned Decision". Unlike Armstrong, Bruyneel has opted to contest Usada's decision, but his case has not yet been heard before a court of arbitration for sport. It is difficult to see how Armstrong's confession will help Bruyneel's case, or how he will beat the ban.
A former speedskater and cycling enthusiast, Weisel, an investment banker who made hundreds of millions of dollars during the dotcom boom, is Armstrong's biggest and oldest financial backer. Described in Tyler Hamilton's book, The Secret Race, as a bullish go-getter ("Just get it fucking done!"), Weisel has been deeply involved in professional cycling since the early 1990s. In 2000, he even organized a bailout of the then financially distressed American governing body, USA Cycling, which enabled him to get his own people on the board, including CEO Steve Johnson, also a long-time cheerleader for Lance Armstrong.
It was Weisel who was the key backer of Tailwind Sports, the company formed to manage the US Postal team, which Armstrong joined in 1998. Stapleton and Knaggs were also directors, as was Armstrong's directeur sportif for all his Tour de France "victories", Johan Bruyneel. As owner of the USPS squad for the first five of Armstrong's wins (1999-2003), the directors of Tailwind Sports are clearly at risk of being dragged in to the whistleblower suit now joined by the Justice Department.
Court papers opened in Washington last month reveal that the San Francisco financier has been served with a subpoena by federal investigators pursuing possible fraud claims against Armstrong. Weisel has made no comment to the media about reports of doping on the USPS team.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © bike