By winning a fist full of Tour de Frances, Lance Armstrong allegedly perpetrated a great fraud upon our federal government.
If you're struggling to comprehend, here's the federal logic. More than a decade ago, some Postal Service whiz decided our stamp money would be better put to use sponsoring a fabulous cycling team. Yet today FDA special agent Jeff Novitzky is leading a massive, multi-million dollar federal investigation to discover whether the Postal Service was tricked into overpaying Armstrong and his teammates.
It's this simple: because Armstrong and others allegedly did what top cyclists have done for decades -- sport and blood doping -- they gave the Post Office a fantastic return on their sponsorship dollars.
The US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team was arguably the most successful in history. Armstrong and teammates performed beyond imagination. It was a dream investment for just millions of dollars a year. Just a few months before Armstrong's next victory in 2004, Anita Bizzotto, chief marketing officer for the Post Office, said the excitement generated by five consecutive Tour de France victories "has been inspiring and exhilarating to the Postal Service, its employees, and the entire country." All told, Armstrong won the premiere race a record seven times.
But now another federal agency, which normally regulates food and pharmaceutical drugs, the FDA, has announced that the Post Office was cheated. The legal theory appears to be that the federal government believes it was defrauded, because the roughly $10 million it paid Armstrong and other riders annually was more than the athletes might have received had the riders not (allegedly) taken drugs and underperformed.
There have even been rumors that Floyd Landis, the former Postal team member and confessed doper who brought forward the most recent charges (two books and the French newspaper L'Equipe made similar allegations several years ago) may profit from this mess, under the 1863 False Claims Act, designed to root out frauds perpetrated on our government. This profit motive seems likely. How else would Landis pay for his team of Wilson Sonsini lawyers, unless there was the promise of doping booty?
I have a simple question. Who gave the Post Office license to fund a pro cycling team for half a decade? It makes about as much sense as the Coast Guard sponsoring billionaire Larry Ellison and sailing's America's Cup. Or the FBI Director Robert Mueller sponsoring the NFL's Washington Redskins. Just how many millions were wasted on this sporting spree?
More than you'd imagine. Over the years, the Post Office has diverted countless millions to lots of pet teams and sports sponsorships, finding it an effective scheme for federal officials to collect the graft of free tickets and celebrity hang time. During the cycling years, the Post Office even paid $3.7 million to the New York Yankees.
As the Lance Armstrong investigation gains steam, someone in Congress will figure out a very straightforward line of reasoning. The greatest fraud of all here was that the Post Office blew millions on its very own private professional cycling team. This would be no less absurd than the National Park Service funding polo players to galavant around the world, as Lance and company did, riding to their heart's delight on the government's dime.
But from 1996 to 2004, three Postmaster Generals peddled our stamp money to Lance -- Marvin Travis Runyon, William Henderson and then John Potter. The Post Office lost $3.8 billion last year, and Postmaster Potter recently announced he may need to cancel Saturday mail delivery and throw thousands more mailmen out of work, but a few years ago he gladly paid Armstrong and company millions to ride thousands of miles.
Armstrong never delivered any mail, and in all of those stories about "through rain and sleet and snow" I don't recall a bicycle. But in 2003, upon winning his fifth consecutive Tour de France, our nation's top federally funded rider, Lance Armstrong, received a congratulatory call from the Commander-in-Chief, George Bush and Postmaster General, John Potter.
I can't wait to see the investigation of that money trail. What was the French travel budget? Who were the ingenious federal officials that conceived this scheme and then diverted U.S. Postal funds to a professional cycling team? Might they be the same officials who mismanaged a federal agency that is losing billions of dollars a year? As PostalWatch executive director Rick Merritt said when the sponsorship finally collapsed under public pressure in 2004, "Talk about a government boondoggle, the pro-cycling sponsorship exemplifies just how delusional postal leadership can be."
But apparently the creative federal accounting has only just begun. I've been scratching my head, trying to figure out why the beleaguered Post Office would want to be any part of this new FDA federal investigation, and believe I've figured it out. Blaming a $4 billion loss on a cyclist is masterful spin control.
And you've got to hand it to the FDA. Only a federal agency could decide to spend millions on a sports investigation certain to expose the bungling of another federal agency.
But then again, maybe Agent Novitzky should order Armstrong to hand back some of his millions. This spring the Post Office told Congress that in the next decade it expects to lose $238 billion.
That's a lot of stamps.