Graham Watson / Reuters
Lance Armstrong, shown here before the 2011 Tour Down Under cycling race in Australia, faces millions in civil claims. The government of Australia has asked for a refund of appearance fees after Armstrong reportedly confessed to doping.
Lance Armstrong may not face criminal charges for admitting to doping, but fending off millions in civil claims could be tougher than climbing the Col du Tourmalet, experts say.
His reported confession to Oprah Winfrey is likely to bolster a whistleblower lawsuit that has caught the feds’ attention, demands for refunds of prize and bonus money, even potential defamation actions by critics he viciously attacked.
“At the end of the day, I would be surprised if the damages – total amount – aren’t in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago lawyer who has represented professional athletes in civil cases.
That would punch a big hole in Armstrong’s fortune – estimated at more than $100 million – but would still be a softer blow than jail time.
Federal prosecutors spent 20 months probing doping allegations against Armstrong for possible criminal charges. Using performance-enhancing drugs in sports isn’t a crime, but investigators probably looked for evidence of fraud, trafficking and perjury.
They closed their criminal case in February 2011, and some observers think it’s unlikely that whatever Armstrong said to Winfrey would lead prosecutors to reopen it.
“Mr. Armstrong is very well-advised by capable lawyers and I don’t think he would be admitting on the Oprah Winfrey show something that would give rise to a criminal charge,” said Wayne Lamprey, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in San Francisco.
But that doesn’t mean Armstrong is completely off the hook with Uncle Sam.
Settlement agreement in place?
A Justice Department official told NBC News some lawyers in the civil division are pushing for the government to join a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2010.
The suit is under seal but published reports have said that Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis brought it on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service, which sponsored the team and paid out $30 million in fees.
If successful, the suit could compel Armstrong and other defendants to pay back that money plus $60 million in damages, with up to 30 percent going to Landis. Federal involvement in the suit could improve Landis' chances.
Lamprey, who handles whistleblower actions, said Armstrong’s decision to spill at least some of his guts while the whistleblower case is still pending “begs the question” of whether there’s an informal settlement agreement in place.
“If I was representing a defendant in a case like this, if I didn’t feel like if I had something buttoned up, I wouldn’t have my client on national television admitting to the core of the charges,” he said. NBC News has been told that talks are under way.
The whistleblower suit is just the biggest-ticket claim on the horizon.
The organization that runs the Tour de France has already said Armstrong should pay back almost $4 million it awarded him for his wins. An insurance firm, SCA Promotions, is asking for $12 million in bonus payouts it covered in 2002, 2003 and 2005. The Australian government on Tuesday asked Armstrong to return millions in appearance fees to race in the Tour Down Under.
Until his sitdown with Winfrey, which airs Thursday and Friday, Armstrong has never wavered in his denial of doping, branding his accusers liars and worse, and his insults theoretically could be grounds for defamation claims.
“I would expect people to come out of the woodwork,” Stoltmann said.
New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica talks about Armstrong's revelation that he did take performance-enhancing drugs after years of denials, calling it a "giant athletic Ponzi scheme," and attorney Lisa Bloom discusses the legal implications.
But David Newman, of Manhattan firm Day Pitney, said the statute of limitations may have run out on many of those statements, and plaintiffs would have to prove they had been damaged by Armstrong’s rantings.
Newman also said he would not expect to see lawsuits from some of Armstrong’s former sponsors, like Nike, Anheuser-Busch and Trek, seeking to recoup what they spent.
“One could argue fraudulent inducement or misrepresentation,” Newman said. “But Nike or any of these sponsors don’t want to get into a lawsuit even if they’re right, because long, drawn-out litigation blackens their name even more.
“They want to cut the ties and move on and find the good new person to sponsor – the next Oprah Winfrey.”
NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.
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