LOS ANGELES • Federal prosecutors closed their investigation of Lance Armstrong without charging him over allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs Friday, ending a nearly two-year effort aimed at examining whether a doping program was created to keep the seven-time Tour de France winner and his teammates running at the head of the pack.
Armstrong has steadfastly denied he doped during his unparalleled career, but the possibility of criminal charges threatened to stain his legacy as the world’s greatest cyclist and could have cast a shadow over his cancer charity work.
The probe, anchored in Los Angeles where a grand jury was presented evidence by federal prosecutors and heard testimony from Armstrong’s former teammates and associates, began with a separate investigation of Rock Racing, a cycling team owned by fashion entrepreneur Michael Ball.
United States Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. announced in a press release that his office “is closing an investigation into allegations of federal criminal conduct by members and associates of a professional bicycle racing team owned in part by Lance Armstrong.”
He didn’t disclose the reason for the decision.
The pronouncement comes after a pair of less-than-successful cases against top athletes accused of doping. Home run king Barry Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice and sentenced in December to 30 days’ home detention — a conviction he’s appealing — but prosecutors were unable to convince a jury he lied about using steroids. Roger Clemens’ steroid trial is slated for April 17 after a judge declared a mistrial last summer when prosecutors showed jurors inadmissible evidence.
Investigators looked at whether a doping program was established for Armstrong’s team while, at least part of the time, they received government sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service. They also examined whether Armstrong encouraged or facilitated doping on the team.
Armstrong won the Tour de France every year from 1999-2005.
Led by federal agent Jeff Novitzky, who also investigated Bonds and Clemens, U.S. authorities sought assistance overseas, requesting urine samples of U.S. Postal riders from France’s anti-doping agency and also meeting with officials from Belgium, Spain and Italy.
Prosecutors also subpoenaed Armstrong supporters and ex-teammates to testify in Los Angeles. Among them were Ukrainian cyclist Yaroslav Popovych, who rode on three Armstrong teams dating back to 2005; Allen Lim, an exercise physiologist for Team Radioshack; and longtime Armstrong friend Stephanie McIlvain.
The investigation began after Novitzky was told about a cache of PEDs found by a landlord in the vacated apartment of Kyle Leogrande, a cyclist who rode for Rock Racing and had a doping ban, according to several people familiar with the case.
The investigation also was spurred by disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis, who claims Armstrong had a long-running doping system in place while they were teammates. Landis, who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for drug use, acknowledged in 2010 he used performance-enhancing drugs after years of denying he cheated.
One of the most serious accusations came during a “60 Minutes” interview last May when former teammate Tyler Hamilton said he saw Armstrong use EPO during the 1999 Tour de France and in preparation for the 2000 and 2001 tours.
The report also said Armstrong loyalist George Hincapie, another ex-teammate, told federal authorities that he and Armstrong supplied each other with PEDs and discussed them. Hincapie released a statement after the segment aired, saying he did not speak with the show and didn’t know where it got its information.
As the investigation progressed, Armstrong assembled a legal team, hired a spokesman and briefly created a website to address any of the allegations reported by the media.
Frustrated by a slew of news articles about the investigation, Armstrong’s attorneys filed a motion in July, asking a judge to order federal agents to testify about their contacts with reporters.
——— Associated Press writer Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.
U.S. Attorney Birotte issues statement on Armstrong
United States Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. released the following statement Friday regarding the Lance Armstrong doping investigation:
“United States Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. today announced that his office is closing an investigation into allegations of federal criminal conduct by members and associates of a professional bicycle racing team owned in part by Lance Armstrong.
The United States Attorney determined that a public announcement concerning the closing of the investigation was warranted by numerous reports about the investigation in media outlets around the world. Mr. Birotte commended the joint investigative efforts of his prosecutors and special agents with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Postal Service - Office of the Inspector General.”
— The Associated Press