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Closure of Armstrong probe could affect federal investigations

After another failed investigation, some are wondering whether the US government should continue the pursuit of athletes who are suspected of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

Lance Armstrong: case closed.
Lance Armstrong: case closed.
Image: AP Photo/Laurent Rebours, File

AMERICA’S FEDERAL GOVERNMENT pursued a drug case against home run king Barry Bonds for more than seven years.

The end result: a guilty verdict on just one count and a sentence of 30 days confinement at Bonds’ estate in Beverly Hills.

Prosecutors’ first attempt to convict star pitcher Roger Clemens ended in a mistrial, so they’re preparing for another attempt in two months.

And now the US attorney in Los Angeles has decided that after presenting evidence to a federal grand jury over nearly two years, it will not pursue charges against Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who beat cancer and won the Tour de France seven straight times but was shadowed by doping allegations throughout his unprecedented run.

After all the time and effort that has gone into such cases, some are wondering whether the government should continue the pursuit of athletes who are suspected of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

“This is an example where prosecutors are out scouring the countryside to bring charges against a high-profile athlete,” said defense attorney Mark Werksman, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s disturbing that they contort and stretch to find a crime. It’s an abuse of federal power. It’s wrong.”

The 40-year-old Armstrong maintains he has never failed a drug test, but he nonetheless became the focus of investigators’ attention after former teammate Floyd Landis accused him in 2010 of participating in a doping program.

Finally, however, prosecutors decided not to press their case.

Failures

Prosecutors missed on two other recent occasions, when the goal was landing a major conviction against superstars. Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice and sentenced in December to home detention, but jurors deadlocked on whether he lied to a grand jury when he denied knowingly using PEDs.

The steroids case against ace Roger Clemens became derailed last summer after a judge declared a mistrial when prosecutors showed jurors inadmissible evidence. Trial is now set for 17 April.

The investigations into Bonds, Clemens and Armstrong had a larger context — an effort to clean up professional sports that had been dirtied by positive drug tests and admissions from some athletes that they had taken PEDs.

The most famous of these investigations involved the notorious Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a steroids ring operating just outside San Francisco. And while the sentences were relatively light, the federal probe did result in 11 convictions — including Bonds’ — and helped spark stronger anti-drug efforts in baseball.

“One of the lessons of the Bonds case is that juries do not like to convict professional athletes who they hold as heroes,” said Mathew Rosengart, also a former federal prosecutor. “To the government’s credit, they used their discretion wisely.”

In rendering his decision on Friday, US Attorney Andre Birotte Jr said in a statement that his office was closing an investigation that looked at potential criminal conduct by members and associates of a racing team owned in part by Armstrong, indicating Armstrong wasn’t the only one who could have faced charges.

Yet some observers believe that, in making their decision to drop the Armstrong case, prosecutors felt it would be too difficult to gain a conviction against someone admired not only as a competitor but the face of the cancer charity Livestrong.

The challenge facing prosecutors was to determine if Armstrong and other team members violated federal conspiracy, fraud or racketeering charges. Investigators looked at whether a doping program was established for Armstrong’s team while, at least part of the time, it received government sponsorship from the US Postal Service.

Agent

At the centre of the investigation was federal agent Jeff Novitzky, who also helped bring the charges against Bonds and Clemens and has been criticised for targeting athletes and wasting taxpayer dollars.

“The enormous bill for this fruitless trophy hunting expedition led by agent Jeff Novitzky needs to be totaled up and those responsible should be held accountable,” said Victor Conte, the BALCO founder and president, who spent four months in prison after pleading guilty to steroids distribution.

“Especially in this economic crisis it’s important to make the highest use of the available tax dollars and that certainly does not seem to be the case with this investigation.”

Indeed, the government spent plenty of time and resources investigating Armstrong. Federal prosecutors traveled to Europe and met with foreign officials and they called some of Armstrong’s former teammates and associates to testify before a grand jury in Los Angeles.

Government officials declined to say how much money was spent on the Armstrong probe.

Going forward, some legal experts said, the government’s time may be better spent prosecuting other crimes — rather than sending a message to the professional sports community.

“In light of this decision and the Bonds and Clemens investigations,” Rosengart said, “the government may be more willing to defer to the regulatory agencies to police alleged misconduct of athletes.”

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