Landis hearings take an early, unfortunate turn

Updated: May 16, 2007, 2:51 AM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

MALIBU, Calif. -- The Floyd Landis doping arbitration hearing stalled and ran aground for much of the day Tuesday on a language barrier -- an embarrassing episode for a high-profile international proceeding.

An interpreter brought in to translate the first of what could be a parade of French-speaking witnesses from the lab where Landis' samples were tested was let go after it became clear he was not up to the task.

Analytical chemist Cynthia Mongongu, who processed Landis' disputed positive "A" sample from Stage 17 of the Tour de France and, months later, also tested some of his "B" samples, first took the stand at mid-morning. But the original interpreter, Pierre Debboudt, complained that he could not hear her because he was seated at some distance.

GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty ImagesChemist Cynthia Mongongu said Tuesday she did not know the samples she was testing belonged to Floyd Landis.

Courtroom technicians worked over an early hour-long lunch break to move his microphone position next to Mongongu, but things continued to deteriorate after the recess. Bilingual courtroom observers shook their heads as Debboudt mis-translated technical and non-technical terms during U.S. Anti-Doping Agency lawyer Daniel Dunn's direct examination.

After Debboudt translated the phrase "a day and a half" as "an hour and a half,'' Landis' lawyer Maurice Suh was no longer able to contain himself and interrupted to ask the panel to find a better solution. Panel chairman Patrice Brunet, a Canadian who speaks French and had previously made his own attempts to intervene, agreed and recessed the hearing for another hour to give a new translator, Martitia Palmer, time to arrive.

Although Palmer said she felt uncomfortable -- "I'm really distressed that I didn't have at least an hour'' to prepare by reviewing technical terms, she told the panel -- she was able to help move the hearing along, albeit at a measured pace.

USADA is responsible for hiring interpreters in arbitration hearings like the one where the three-man panel is deciding whether or not to uphold doping charges against Landis.

Mark Levinstein, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has represented athletes in doping and other sports-related arbitrations, said a language problem would greatly complicate an already difficult job.

"No matter what they claim the standard is, you have to prove you're innocent," Levinstein said. "This makes it even worse."

Levinstein hasn't dealt with a situation exactly parallel to what happened in the Landis case Tuesday. But he recalled the case in which he represented U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm, whose 2004 Olympic gold medal in the all-around event was challenged by the second-place finisher, a South Korean athlete, because of a scoring controversy.

In the case, heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, Levinstein said the translator brought by the Korean athlete would translate the lawyer's question, engage in lengthy conversation with the witness, "and then turn to me and say, 'Yes.'"

He also noted that dealing with an interpreter affects the way lawyers from both sides can phrase questions, as they usually have to use short phrases and take care not to use overly sophisticated language.

In a typical U.S. criminal or civil court case, the court provides interpreters so that there is no appearance of bias.

After the hearing got rolling again, Dunn led Mongongu through a series of questions on subjects clearly aimed at blunting Landis' publicly-stated criticisms of the testing process.

Mongongu vouched for security procedures at the lab and said she didn't find out the samples she was testing were Landis' until last weekend.

"I'm not much of a cycling fan," she said.

The principle of blind testing is considered crucial in doping cases.

Mongongu also said she did not handle the "B" sample bottle, although she did verify the results after another chemist analyzed them.

Doping charges against Spanish cyclist Inigo Landaluze were overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after a panel ruled that the same technicians had improperly handled both the "A" and "B" samples. Different personnel are supposed to perform the analyses to avoid an individual's conflict of interest in verifying his or her own results.

Dunn went line-by-line through an electronic data file meant to show that testing machinery was operating properly, asking Mongongu for explanations of a number of entries. Landis' lawyers already have challenged the data, saying it was manipulated and alleging that USADA senior managing director Larry Bowers personally tried to keep them from obtaining the logs.

Mongongu, a Belgium-born technician who holds a Congolese passport and was educated in Paris, is sure to face aggressive questioning from Suh on Wednesday.

Other witnesses scheduled to testify are Mongongu's lab colleague Claire Frelat, who tested Landis' original "B" sample, and Christiane Ayotte, director of the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab in Montreal, who is expected to address general testing standards and procedures and the reliability of the French lab's results.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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