Commentary

Feds reach far back in Armstrong probe

Former teammate and wife turn over documents and recordings to investigators

Updated: September 2, 2010, 7:36 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

The wide net federal investigators are casting to build a fraud and doping case against seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and his business associates became more apparent this week when Armstrong's former teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, confirmed that they have been cooperating with lead Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky.

Novitzky interviewed the Andreus and asked them to provide certain documents and recordings, which they voluntarily turned over. They have not received a subpoena, either for documents or for testimony before the grand jury currently hearing evidence in Los Angeles.

The Andreus' relationship with Armstrong began in the early 1990s when Frankie Andreu rode and roomed with him on the Motorola team. The friendship continued through Armstrong's illness, his comeback and his first two Tour de France victories, but later tapered off and soured.

Andreu raced for the U.S. Postal Service team from 1998 to 2000 and later admitted using the banned blood booster EPO during the 1999 season. His experiences on the team are surely of interest to Novitzky even though Andreu did not overlap with Floyd Landis, whose detailed allegations concerning systemic doping at Postal from 2002 to 2004 triggered the government's concerted scrutiny of that organization. Betsy Andreu has been outspoken in recent years in assailing Armstrong's credibility.

Lance Armstrong
Mike Powell/Getty ImagesEx-teammate Frankie Andreu interviews Lance Armstrong before stage one of the 2002 Tour De France.

How might the Andreus' knowledge -- some of it relating to events of 10 or 15 years ago -- fit into Novitzky's case? Neither the agent nor anyone directly involved on the investigative side is talking, and the couple declined to go into specifics.

The answer may begin with, but is not limited to, the much-discussed "hospital room incident" in October 1996, when Armstrong was recovering from surgery for testicular cancer that had spread to his brain.

To recap, the Andreus were among a group of friends who visited Armstrong at the Indiana University hospital when the cyclist's prognosis and his career prospects were uncertain. The Andreus say that two doctors entered the room and asked Armstrong questions, including whether he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs. According to the Andreus, he ticked off a list that included steroids, human growth hormone, cortisone and EPO.

The episode was first reported publicly in a 2004 book co-written by journalists David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, "L.A. Confidentiel," which was only published in French. The book came to the notice of SCA Promotions, a Texas insurance company that had signed a contract with the Postal team's ownership to pay Armstrong a $5 million bonus if he won a record-breaking sixth Tour. The hospital room incident, along with other allegations against Armstrong, prompted the company's refusal to pay the bonus.

Armstrong sued, and the case went to arbitration. The Andreus gave depositions under oath about what they had seen and heard. Armstrong testified that the conversation they described never took place. His supervising physician, Dr. Craig Nichols, signed an affidavit stating that he had not asked Armstrong the questions recounted by the Andreus and that he could find no reference to the subject in Armstrong's medical records. The Andreus could not identify the doctors who came into the room but said Nichols was not one of them.

Another person present in the hospital room was Armstrong's friend Stephanie McIlvain, a representative for Oakley Inc., one of Armstrong's longtime sponsors. Betsy Andreu has said that in private conversations afterward, McIlvain acknowledged hearing the same thing she had.

In 2004, three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, who had by then publicly cast doubt on the legitimacy of Armstrong's performances, phoned McIlvain and recorded the call without her knowledge. He elicited what seemed to be corroboration of the Andreus' recollection of the hospital room incident. "I'm not going to lie," McIlvain told LeMond. "You know, I was in that room. I heard it." However, McIlvain, the only other witness asked about the incident under oath, testified that she remembered being in the room but did not recall the conversation about drugs.

The case was settled in Armstrong's favor before the arbitrators ruled, but the disputed incident has never stopped reverberating. Testimony in the SCA case was the subject of in-depth reports by several large media outlets. In the years since the case was resolved, Armstrong and the Andreus have staunchly held to their statements. According to Betsy Andreu, McIlvain continued to call her, and her voice mail messages are among the materials Novitzky requested.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that McIlvain had refused to speak with Novitzky and had received a subpoena. Her attorney, Tom Beinart, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Armstrong's longtime personal attorney, Tim Herman, told National Public Radio in 2006 that the Andreus might have been confused about a discussion of Armstrong's medical treatment at that time, which included EPO and steroids to counter the toxic effects of chemotherapy. (Betsy Andreu testified that she knew Armstrong's treatment included EPO, but insists she did not confuse the issues.) Armstrong attorney and public relations liaison Mark Fabiani repeated that explanation this week. However, Armstrong testified in the SCA case that no discussion of his medical treatment took place in front of his visitors on that day, adding that he wouldn't have answered questions from doctors he didn't know with visitors present. Armstrong's lawyers say the versions will never be reconciled and contend the incident simply never happened.

Asked to comment on the Andreus' involvement in the investigation, Fabiani said in an e-mailed response that the hospital room incident was "a very old story that was long ago disproved by Lance's doctors, by medical records, and by everyone else in the room that day. The fact that this ancient piece of fiction is now being rehashed shows that the motorboat for this taxpayer-money-wasting FDA fishing expedition is already running on fumes." He and Armstrong's lead criminal lawyer, Bryan Daly, have both repeatedly questioned whether the government investigation is appropriate.

The Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal trade publication, reported Thursday that Armstrong's legal team had met with U.S. attorneys earlier this week to discuss the case. Neither side would divulge details of the meeting, and such contact is not uncommon in a high-profile investigation.

The hospital room incident and the subsequent narrative it has created are dramatic flashpoints, but as ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack pointed out, "Certainly, anything [Armstrong] did in 1996, the statute of limitations would have run out no matter what it is, except for murder." Novitzky might have some professional curiosity in what Armstrong said 14 years ago, but it's likely that he is more focused on more recent events, namely, whether Armstrong and McIlvain testified truthfully in the SCA case. Documents from that case were subpoenaed by federal investigators in July.

In an e-mailed statement, Betsy Andreu called herself and her husband "two small pieces of this puzzle," and added: "The money spent by the government to stop fraud in sports is miniscule in comparison to the money being made by the athletes committing the fraud. The investigation is a good thing for those of us who want clean sport -- not just for the athlete who wants to compete clean but especially for the youth who partake in it."

Doping in and of itself is low on the totem pole of federal offenses. Blood transfusions done for doping purposes -- which figure significantly into Landis' allegations about what went on at Postal -- are not illegal, although they are a performance-enhancing technique banned under international anti-doping rules for Olympic sports. Reading the few smoke signals that have risen from the investigation indicates that the law enforcement officials running it are endeavoring to present a case supporting more serious charges of fraud or conspiracy. The widening scope of Novitzky's inquiry shows how complex and challenging that may be.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.