Normally, if you can get something for a nickel on the dollar — a fast food burger for a quarter, a house in a nice neighborhood for the price of a car — you made out like a bandit.
When what you got for five cents on the dollar is a $100 million lawsuit filed against you by the government, the fact that you got off easy is faint comfort.
Lance Armstrong is $5 million poorer after settling a doping fraud case with the Justice Department over his cycling career with the U.S. Postal Service-sponsored team, most notably at the Tour de France, an event he won seven times.
Making matters worse, Armstrong is also out another $1.65 million in court costs he has been mandated to pay out to former teammate Floyd Landis, whose whistleblowing shook the cycling world like a magnitude-9 earthquake in 2007 and whose revelations were the foundation on which the Justice Department built its case against Armstrong.
The case would have gone to trial on May 7 with the full $100 million at stake; for Armstrong to get out of it with just the cost he’s incurred saved him from a fate that would almost assuredly have ruined him and left the rest of his working life a tale of garnishments, debt collectors and other perils of the working class rather than the celebrity class.
As it stands, Armstrong has put his home in Austin, Texas, up for sale; it is expected to fetch $7.5 million, enough to pay his debt and leave him enough money to buy a nice little $850,000 tar paper shack in the sticks.
Armstrong made $32.3 million in sponsorship money while riding for the Postal Service team; the amount quoted in the lawsuit included repayment of those earnings plus compensatory and punitive damages for “nullifying his value to the Postal Service brand.”
The Justice Department, for its part, said “no one is above the law.”
“A competitor who intentionally uses illegal [performance enhancing drugs] not only deceives fellow competitors and fans, but also sponsors, who help make sporting competitions possible,” said Chad Readler, acting assistant attorney general for the civil division.
Landis, for his part, said that the battle “has been a difficult ordeal and public opinion was not always on my side, but it was the right thing to do, and I am hopeful that some positive changes for cycling and sport in general will be the result.”
In terms of damage to the brand, Armstrong used the you-didn’t-think-so-at-the-time defense, pointing out that just because someone is disgraced after the fact does not mean that everyone didn’t make a whole lot of money during the good times.
The argument goes that Armstrong’s net value, the promotional value he added, is far greater than the value lost by the doping allegations.
On his cycling career, Armstrong said, “I rode my heart out for the Postal cycling team, and was always especially proud to wear the red, white and blue eagle on my chest when competing in the Tour de France. Those memories are very real and mean a lot to me.”
And indeed, even though his Tour wins have been officially disqualified, much like “vacated wins” in college sports, Tour officials can’t go around “Men in Black”-style and wipe the memories of fans who saw Armstrong cross the finish line first on seven different occasions.
For the Justice Department, this is something of a rare victory; it has been aggressively going after sports cheats but has had little success in open court.
The DOJ’s pursuit of baseball’s Barry Bonds resulted in a lone conviction for obstruction of justice that ended up overturned by an appeals court in 2015.
It tried to nail Roger Clemens for lying to Congress about not having used performance-enhancing drugs, but that line of inquiry got the department nowhere as Clemens was acquitted in 2012.
The Clemens setback led to attempts to get Armstrong on criminal charges being dropped entirely.
And now, all the Justice Department has to show for its quixotic windmill chasing is five cents on the dollar.
Armstrong’s legal team even pointed that out, calling the money spent, which was more than the settlement collected, a waste of taxpayer dollars.
On the bright side, Landis just got a refund on his $1.65 million in legal fees and a $1.1 million reward under the False Claims Act, which entitles him to 22 percent of the proceeds of any money recovered.
And as the oldest saying in the book goes about lawsuits, at least the lawyers got rich.
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