Lab tech thrust into the unlikeliest of spotlights

Updated: May 17, 2007, 2:26 AM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

MALIBU, Calif. -- For much of Wednesday, the fate of a beleaguered athlete and the reputation of a beleaguered French laboratory seemed to rest on the slender shoulders of a 28-year-old analytical chemist.

Cynthia Mongongu's boss and colleagues from the Chatenay-Malabry lab, all potential witnesses in the doping case against Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, watched from the front row of the courtroom as she was grilled by Landis' lawyers and then endured a second round of questioning from lawyers representing the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Cynthia Mongongu
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesLab technician Cynthia Mongongu performed the analysis of Landis' infamous Stage 17 "A" sample.

Landis is on trial, and so, in a way, is the Laboratoire National du Dépistage du Dopage. It's only one of more than 30 facilities accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but it has been the target of far more attention than most others, partly because of test results leaked to the press in several high-profile cases and challenged by athletes including seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong.

Thus Mongongu found herself at the center of two vortexes at once as she gave testimony critical to Landis' case and perhaps to her employer, as well.

Landis, accused of using synthetic testosterone, needs to prove the lab's work is shoddy enough to cast doubts on his test results. USADA wants to show everything is shipshape. Mongongu remained largely composed during her second day on the stand, although she was unresponsive at times to questions posed by defense lawyers Howard Jacobs and Maurice Suh, prompting arbitration panel chairman Patrice Brunet to admonish her at one point.

Mongongu spent part of her lunch break alone, quietly smoking on the patio outside the Pepperdine University School of Law cafeteria, looking at the idyllic coastal scenery below. Her fellow lab workers later joined her and snapped photos of each other.

Before and after that interlude, Jacobs and Suh quizzed Mongongu on basic procedures and methodology in the testing process. She performed the analysis of Landis' Stage 17 "A" sample, which triggered the doping case because of an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, and verified data on the "B" sample. Mongongu also analyzed some of Landis' "B" samples that are said to have shown the presence of synthetic testosterone.

Jacobs first zeroed in on the chain of custody for the original urine sample itself.

Mongongu received the sample on the morning of July 22, 2006, about the time Landis would have been warming up for the time trial that would clinch his victory in the race.

Speaking through an interpreter, she acknowledged she could not account for the sample's whereabouts in the hour-plus between the time she returned it to one of the working rooms in the lab and the time it was stored. USADA lawyer Richard Young later elicited testimony in an effort to show the sample was in a secure room in the lab.

Jacobs then moved on to the testing of Landis' "B" samples in April, done after an unusual request by USADA. He challenged an affidavit Mongongu signed after the week-long testing was complete, in which she alleged that the observers sent by Landis "accosted'' her while she was trying to go about her business.

Mongongu said she felt crowded by the observers, who included approved observers from USADA. "It disturbed me,'' she said, when Paul Scott, a former official at the WADA-accredited laboratory at UCLA who is now working for Landis' defense, demanded to know what had happened when the top of a test tube containing a sample broke.

She testified she eventually felt it necessary to put a strip of tape on the floor and ask the observers to stay behind it.

Jacobs implied that the affidavit exaggerated the incident and pointed out that she could have asked to have Scott removed if she had felt he were interfering with her work.

Jacobs also asked Mongongu several direct questions about whether she had leaked the test results to the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe, which reported the "B" sample findings the day after the analysis was completed. She denied being the source of the leak.

Suh then walked Mongongu through electronic data files for the "B" samples that are supposed to document each step in the carbon-isotope ratio testing process used to detect synthetic testosterone, trying to bolster the defense theory that the data was manipulated.

The instrument is supposed to run automatically unless there is a reason for the technician to intervene. Suh repeatedly asked Mongongu to explain time gaps in the log files. She said she could not explain a dozen or so gaps, some lasting a few minutes and some hours. She acknowledged she did not take notes when she had to interrupt the testing procedure after finding and correcting a malfunction. Such documentation is required under WADA lab standards.

Suh moved on to one of the key facets of Landis' case -- the contention that the chromatograms, or the charts that provide visual evidence of the ratios that indicate use of synthetic testosterone, are inaccurate because of poor procedures.

When Mongongu said she would need a particular document to properly assess the charts, Suh stopped the questioning and demanded that document, which he said was a piece of evidence that had been denied to the defense.

That triggered an acrimonious debate between the lawyers. In the end, Mongongu finished her testimony without the document in question, after Young asked her a series of concise questions designed to respond to issues raised in cross-examination.

If the lawyers are held to the schedule laid out by the arbitrators, Suh and Jacobs' decision to spend so much time on one witness could be viewed as somewhat of a gamble.

The hearing is supposed to conclude a week from now, but after three full days, only three people out of a list of dozens of possible witnesses have completed their testimony.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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