Others noticed an annoying tendency: whenever questions about doping arose, Armstrong and his supporters changed the subject to his cancer work, a tactic that the bicycling website NY Velocity called “raising the cancer shield.” After the 60 Minutes segment on Armstrong aired in May—complete with damning claims from ex-teammate Tyler Hamilton that Armstrong had cheated—Armstrong’s lawyers denied the allegations and quickly invoked Livestrong in his defense. In their one legal brief to date, they blasted the feds over alleged leaks to 60 Minutes that, they said, were intended to legitimize “the government’s investigation of a national hero, best known for his role in the fight against cancer.”
But what did that fight amount to? Did Livestrong actually do much to eradicate cancer, or did it exist largely to promote Lance? If and when any indictments came down, would his good deeds help him escape conviction or jail time? It seemed likely that this theme could come up. Barry Bonds’s lawyers recently asked for probation instead of prison time as punishment for the baseball star’s 2011 Balco conviction, citing his “significant history of charitable, civic, and prior good works.”
Writers who’ve dealt with Lance and his associates are familiar with their aggro style, but it seemed strange that they’d come on so strong that morning. Still, Lance had a point: if I wanted to write about Livestrong, I needed to go see things for myself.
FOR VARIOUS REASONS, I’m not Lance Armstrong’s favorite journalist. In 2006, I profiled Michele Ferrari, his longtime Italian trainer, for Bicycling. Researching that story left me with serious doubts about whether Armstrong had competed clean, as he continues to insist. In 2009, I wrote a Slate story called “JerkStrong” that likened his media relations style to Sarah Palin’s. But my skepticism about Armstrong as an athlete did not extend to the cancer arena. More than once, I have given his book It’s Not About the Bike to friends stricken with the disease. Not all of them survived, but I know that none of them cared whether he doped to win the Tour.
Make no mistake, though: if Armstrong is indicted, the survival of Livestrong will hang in the balance. It seems obvious that Novitzky, an aggressive former IRS agent, would be keenly interested in the organization and how it operates. If so, he’s not alone. At least two other major publications have done serious reporting on Livestrong—that is, they started to. In both cases, Livestrong lawyers succeeded in shutting down the stories before they were published. They applied the same pressures to Outside, blitzing my editors with pissed-off e-mails, phone calls, and, eventually, a five-page letter from general counsel Mona Patel complaining about “Mr. Gifford’s conduct, professionalism, and method of reporting.” One of my crimes was a failed attempt to get a source to talk off the record, an ordinary journalistic practice.
All of which now makes me wonder if I missed something. During an investigation that played out over several months—involving dozens of interviews and careful examination of Livestrong’s public financial records—I found no evidence that Armstrong has done anything illegal in his role as the face of the organization. As far as I can tell, he paid for the private jet himself—which is now for sale, by the way, along with his ranch outside Austin—and he’s apparently been scrupulous about his expenditures as they relate to the nonprofit. When Armstrong travels on Livestrong business, the foundation insists, he picks up his own tabs.
“Since day one, Lance has never been reimbursed for an expense,” says Greg Lee, Livestrong’s CFO. “Period.” Armstrong told me that Livestrong’s board—which includes venture capitalist Jeff Garvey, CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta, and Harlem cancer fighter Harold Freeman—“would resign immediately if any of that shit happened.”
The financial records appear to back up Armstrong’s assertion, and if there’s a more nefarious reality behind the curtain, it may take someone with subpoena power to bring it to light. In addition to Novitzky’s investigation, the IRS examined the foundation’s 2006 returns, although Livestrong officials say it was a routine review.