How Did Lance Armstrong Avoid Doping Prosecution?

After a lengthy criminal investigation, federal prosecutors in February dropped their case against Lance Armstrong, to the surprise of many. For some insight into what may have been behind the U.S. attorney's decision not to prosecute, All Things Considered host Melissa Block talks with University of San Francisco law professor and former U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, who oversaw the BALCO steroid prosecution.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has called the Lance Armstrong doping saga one of the most sordid chapters in sports history, which leaves a big question. If that's true, why did the U.S. attorney, whose office spent 20 months investigating this case, close that inquiry without bringing any criminal charges? The decision to drop the case came this past February from the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Andre Birotte Jr. To talk about why the case may have been dropped, I'm joined by a former U.S. attorney for northern California, Kevin Ryan. He was the lead prosecutor on the BALCO case, which involved steroid use among athletes including Barry Bonds and Marion Jones. Kevin Ryan, welcome to the program.

KEVIN RYAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: And to clarify for our listeners, right off the bat here, you have no connection with U.S. attorney's investigation into Lance Armstrong and his team. You are now in private practice.

RYAN: That's correct.

BLOCK: Okay. Well, the U.S. attorney's office in this case was reported to be looking into possible charges including conspiracy, defrauding the government, drug trafficking, money laundering, witness tampering. Can you help explain why the prosecution may have been dropped?

RYAN: There may have been a lot of different reasons. One could be the fact that the U.S. attorney's office concluded that the doping agencies and the administrative agencies were going to do something on their own administratively, which amounts to an effective punishment for whatever conduct Mr. Armstrong engaged in. Other possibilities are that the venue issue, that is why were they investigating conduct that may have mostly occurred overseas in France, in Spain. Did they have jurisdiction, and if so, what did they have jurisdiction over?

There were statute limitation issues, I am sure. I mean, Mr. Armstrong won his yellow jerseys many, many years ago or relatively many years ago. And there may have been you know, frankly, politics involved. Lance Armstrong is an icon or was until perhaps a few weeks ago. And to take on a figure of his stature, you really have to have a solid case, and you have to be ready for the ramifications of taking on someone who is universally considered to be one of the greatest athletes to ever perform in a sport, professional or otherwise.

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about that last point you raised, which is sort of the political implications of this. I mean, in the realm of prosecutorial discussion, is it fair to consider Lance Armstrong's public profile? Should that be part of the equation?

RYAN: Well, it shouldn't be part of the equation. I mean, the prosecutor should follow the facts and the evidence and the law. That's in a perfect world. Do politics enter into prosecutions? Absolutely. The U.S. attorney in LA, I would speculate, did not make that decision in a vacuum. Probably had folks at Main Justice involved in the decision-making process and taking on a case like that, politically, might have been just too much for them at the time.

BLOCK: There has been blowback from other prosecutions, say, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, you know, the public perception that these were a waste of resources. Do you think that the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles may have been affected by that perception?

RYAN: I do. I think the BALCO prosecution particularly, which is the one I was involved, and then the Roger Clemens case came up post-BALCO investigation, but I think it was part of that same sense of trying to get to the bottom of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. These prosecutions have been criticized severely by some in the media and some in the criminal defense bar. It costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of times. The sentences weren't severe. Why bother? Leave these folks alone. I can see arguments on both sides.

BLOCK: I'd like to get your reaction to something that Lance Armstrong's spokesman, Mark Fabiani, said after the USADA report came out. He said if one-tenth of what USADA is saying was true, the federal government would've brought charges against Lance a long time ago. What do you think about that?

RYAN: Well, I think there is a real - that's a real challenge by him because there are those who believe there was sufficient evidence to bring charges. The fact that there has been this action by USADA and the public statements by USADA, and to some extent, the statements by the attorney, may in fact reinvigorate this investigation at the U.S. attorney's office. I mean, you know, you poke a stick in a rattle snake and sometimes they're going to bite back. So if you challenge them and you potentially embarrass them and there is evidence that there was a crime committed, they may, in fact, revisit it and pick up your challenge. So you have to be careful of what you say.

BLOCK: That's Kevin Ryan, former U.S. attorney for Northern California. He now teaches at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Kevin Ryan, thanks very much.

RYAN: Thank you.

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