Monday, September 13, 2010

Floyd Landis as Whistleblower?

As Mike noted in his SI column last spring, the Landis-Armstrong doping drama has some interesting legal consequences. Mike drew attention to "...the possibility that Armstrong's treatment of USPS sponsorship money could bring legal scrutiny, particularly under the federal statute for the misuse of public funds and embezzlement."

Last week, news leaked that Floyd Landis has filed a federal False Claims Act lawsuit. See the AP story, yahoo sports, and the Wall Street Journal.

Under the FCA, whistleblowers can bring "qui tam" actions in the name of the United States to recover monies paid out by the federal government based on false claims. Known as "Lincoln's Law," because of its origins in fraudulent defense contracting during the Civil War, the FCA has been a powerful tool for uncovering fraud and rewarding whistleblowers (known as "relators") for bringing original information to the government's attention. I argued for extension of the FCA model to financial fraud whistleblowers in a 2007 article, "Beyond Protection."

Under the statue, plaintiff whistleblowers can recover a portion -- up to 30% -- of the government's losses due to false claims. The statute also requires that the complaint be filed under seal with the court and delivered to the DOJ. The DOJ's Civil Division lawyers review the allegations and decide whether or not to pursue the case themselves; if they decline to intervene, the whistleblower can still bring the case on behalf of the government. But the fact that the complaint is under seal means that the defendant here, Lance Armstrong, the public and the media have yet to have access to the details of the allegations.

So at this point any analysis of the strength of the complaint is mere speculation (or character attack). Still, it seems like Landis will face some significant obstacles. For one, he will need to establish a false claim to the government -- that Armstrong made some false statement in a request for money. Here, presumably, we're talking about sponsorship money paid out to Armstrong's team by the US Postal Service. Landis will need to prove that, prior to getting the money, Armstrong made false statements regarding his alleged doping. If he made no such statements, or if the USPS funds weren't actually conditioned on any promise of being dope-free, then it would be hard to establish a false claim for payment.

More fundamentally, FCA relators only get paid if they are the "original source" of information not yet in the public domain. This may be the bigger challenge for Landis. What original information about Armstrong has he offered? Was the information he offered already in the hands of government investigators, or already in the public domain, before he supposedly brought it to the government's attention?