After hearing nearly three hours of arguments yesterday, a federal judge indicated that he is unlikely to fully dismiss a civil fraud case against former cyclist Lance Armstrong and several co-defendants.
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins said: "I may grant dismissals as to some of the defendants, but I doubt it as to all."
Wilkins said he likely would issue a ruling within 30 days and that he expected the case to "move very quickly" after that.
The judge also said he was "not inclined to grant" Armstrong’s request to coordinate the depositions in this case with those in four other civil lawsuits Armstrong is facing in various state and federal courts. Armstrong had hoped to avoid having to endure aggressive questioning, again and again, but one of his attorneys, John Keker, responded that he would not challenge such a ruling.
There are plenty of defendants in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit brought in 2010 by one of Armstrong’s former teammates, Floyd Landis, and joined by the government this year. The defendants include: Armstrong; his management company, Tailwind Sports; and his former team manager, Johan Bruyneel; Tailwind investor Thomas Weisel; Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stapleton; and an executive of Stapleton’s agency, Barton Knaggs.
The suits are separate but part of the same case in which it is alleged that the U.S. Postal Service would not have paid $40 million to sponsor Armstrong’s team from 1998 to 2004 if it had known the riders were violating their contracts by doping.
At issue for much of yesterday’s hearing – was whether the statute of limitations applies.
However, the government claimed that because Armstrong concealed his wrongdoing through a variety of denials and retaliatory actions against those who made doping allegations against him, the statute of limitations should be extended to 10 years.
Landis wants even more. Separately from the government, he is arguing that the statute of limitations reaches back even further under a law that in wartime grants the government additional time to pursue fraud allegedly perpetrated against it. The United States was at war in Afghanistan during some of Armstrong’s alleged fraud.
A lawyer for Armstrong said the government is not entitled to a 10-year statute of limitations in this case because it already was aware of doping allegations against Armstrong when the Postal Service renewed its contract with Armstrong’s team in 2000, not long after he won that year’s Tour de France.
Elliot Peters reiterated a point made in Armstrong’s court filings: Postal Service officials knew at the time of the renewal that French authorities were investigating Armstrong. Peters added that USPS officials "were aware of lots more than that," but he did not elaborate.
Lawyers for the government and Landis countered that Armstrong’s efforts to hide his wrongdoing were considerable. In an ironic turn, they buttressed their case with a contention from Weisel’s attorney, Robert Sacks, who said the case against Weisel should be dismissed because even Weisel, now a co-defendant in the case, was not aware of Armstrong’s doping.
Landis’ lawyer, Paul Scott, however, later asserted that Weisel had, "we believe, actual knowledge" of Armstrong’s doping and an alleged cover-up. Scott also alleged that "Armstrong was supposed to have anti-doping provisions in his contract" with Tailwind and "mysteriously, they were not (actually) in Mr. Armstrong’s contract."
Judge Wilkins quizzed Justice Department attorney Robert Chandler concerning Chandler’s contention that "it was clear the Postal Service did not know and could not know about" Armstrong’s doping. Chandler said that because successful athletes often face doping allegations, it was "reasonable under the circumstances" that the government did not look into the allegations against Armstrong, who had never failed a doping test.
Wilkins responded by saying: "You’re arguing here that doping allegations are made all the time and they can be made by anyone. So in that sense, you don’t take seriously allegations made by anyone? What would it have taken for there to be a inquiry? Is your position that short of a positive drug test, nothing would have risen to the level for the Postal Service to make an inquiry?"
Chandler said that absent "concrete suspicion, supported by corroborative evidence," the Postal Service was not obliged to investigate the allegations against Armstrong before renewing the contract."
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