WASHINGTON • A federal judge on Monday rejected cyclist Lance Armstrong's attempt to throw out a United States government lawsuit to collect US$100 million (S$142 million) it says he owes taxpayers for lost promotional value after he admitted doping while sponsored by the United States Postal Service (USPS). The decision clears the case to go to trial.
The ruling marks a major victory for the US government since it joined a 2010 whistleblower lawsuit brought by Armstrong's former team-mate Floyd Landis.
While generally accepting Armstrong's argument that USPS reaped "substantial" benefits during most of his seven Tour de France wins, US District Judge Christopher Cooper of Washington, DC., wrote the actual "determination of damages must be left to a jury".
The benefit "USPS received is not sufficiently quantifiable to keep any reasonable juror from finding that the agency suffered a net loss," given the negative publicity over Armstrong's doping and confession, Cooper wrote.
US Justice Department spokesman Nicole Navas said it declined to comment beyond its public filings.
Elliot Peters, lead attorney for Armstrong, said "as the Court's opinion reveals, there is no actual evidence of any quantifiable financial harm to the USPS. So the government may now proceed to a trial that, as a practical matter, it cannot win".
Armstrong, 45, attended a November hearing before Cooper when his attorneys argued USPS got more than its money's worth from 2000 to 2004, during which it paid his team US$32.3 million.
"Bottom line: USPS got more than it paid for and is not a victim of fraud," Peters said in court quoting a 2012 e-mail sent by a USPS advertising executive to William Henderson, the US postmaster general from 1998 to 2001.
Peters also said a USPS presentation drafted in November 2003 estimated that the service reaped US$109 million in media exposure and US$4 million to US$6 million in other benefits from its support of Armstrong through what was then Tailwind Sports.
Armstrong conceded in 2013 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs as a rider despite years of strenuous denials in the face of persistent rumours.
He was stripped by cycling authorities of the seven Tour de France championships he had won from 1999 to 2005, and banned from the sport.
The US government is asking for triple damages for sponsorship of Armstrong's USPS Pro Cycling Team, or US$100 million, of which Landis could receive up to a quarter.
A decision in Armstrong's favour could have cut his potential liability to civil fines of less than US$500,000.
David Finkelstein, a lawyer in the Justice Department's civil fraud section, said USPS had not done a study of the financial impact after Armstrong's admitted doping in January 2013 during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
But the swift dumping of him by others around that time showed his endorsement had no value, the government argued.
Landis' lead lawyer, Paul Scott, said a failure to punish Armstrong for "the greatest doping conspiracy in the history of sport" would reward him and his supporters, sending the message that "if you keep it quiet for long enough, then you don't have to pay it back".