Celebrity Prosecutions: the Lance Armstrong Investigation

The Wall Street Journal reports that federal prosecutors are stepping up their efforts to investigate Lance Armstrong for doping, or rather lying about doping. Now, Armstrong has strenuously denied doing anything illegal and moreover he was competing in Tours where doping was not only controversial, but also subject to strict scrutiny resulting in the wholesale disqualification of dozens of riders. But, for whatever reason, no one can rest until Armstrong has been frog-marched past the cameras: Prosecutors Step Up Armstrong Probe
Federal prosecutors handling an investigation into cheating in professional cycling have subpoenaed documents from an arbitration case that sought to prove that Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.

The documents contain depositions from former teammates and associates of the seven-time Tour de France champion during a period when a promotions company was trying to prove that Mr. Armstrong employed banned drugs and practices—known as doping—during his cycling career.

Jeffrey Tillotson, the attorney who represented the company, SCA Promotions Inc., in the arbitration hearings, said it received a subpoena for the records on July 16. He is preparing to send the files to the federal prosecutors in Los Angeles who are handling the investigation, he said.

Mr. Armstrong has repeatedly denied doping allegations and has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

I have no idea whether Armstrong was doping or lying about doping or whatever. I do know that the dumb thing to do would be to go all Roger Clemons on everybody, and angrily deny/lie all. Armstrong and his many advisors no doubt know that a quick admission of wrong doing will be a lot more painless than a slow reveal. The fact that Armstrong has remained adamant, combined with the fact that his primary accusers are the classic axe-to-grind types, makes me think that there is nothing there.

Still, prosecutors are absolutely determined to make a case, any case:

Using performing-enhancing techniques in sports is generally not against the law in the U.S. But federal prosecutors could make the case that Mr. Armstrong defrauded investors by accepting sponsorship dollars with the understanding that he would not use the drugs, if they prove that he doped.

Here we have a perfect example of the Apple Rule: the curious phenomenon of media and prosecutors going hammer and tongs against certain high profile white collar suspects, while treating others with the sort of discretion and circumspection normally associated with probate attorneys. If you are a "beloved" figure such as, say, Steven Jobs, then investigations of your company's misconduct - involving the manner in which your pay was calculated such that you were the 4th highest paid CEO of the last decade; sounds like the dread Greed! - are handled quietly and almost obscurely. But if you are someone who has generated any sort of ill will, like, say, Martha Stewart, then you will be hounded into prison.

Many of the high profile prosecutions of the last 10 years have followed this pattern. There were crimes committed at Enron, but there were also a lot of gratuitous and abusive prosecutions, two of which - Arthur Anderson and Jeffrey Skilling - were later overturned by the Supreme Court. But, Enron was (hissss) an energy company. Ted Stevens may have been an unpleasant man, but if prosecutors could not make a case against him without engaging in wide ranging misconduct, they probably shouldn't have tried. But, Stevens was (hissss) a Republican from (hissss) Alaska. Kobe Bryant undoubtedly had sex with that flaky blond in Colorado, but there was no rape, and prosecutors knew about the accuser's slutty behavior even as they were chasing Bryant hither and yon. But, Bryant was a (hissss) basketball player who made no effort to kiss butt in the media. And, Karl Rove never disclosed anything about Valerie Plame and the prosecutor - lionized in the media of course - knew that from the beginning. But, Rove was (hissss) Karl Rove so, you know...

In the years since OJ, it's clear that prosecutors, judges, and juries have decided that a person's celebrity is an aggravating factor in any criminal prosecution. The fact is that you never saw people going to jail over the sort of perjury parsing that sent Martha Stewart to prison and nearly sent Rove. You never saw young women like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan chucked into jail. This isn't to defend these idiots. But, if your notoriety and infamy is going to be taken into account at sentencing, the government really ought to let us know.

More here from Larry Ribstein.

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