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Lance Armstrong’s $5M settlement of whistleblower case sends message

Even celebrity cyclists like Lance Armstrong must "turn square corners" when dealing with the government. (Photo by Flickr.)

Professional cyclists tend to round their corners. Not just the literal ones, as Lance Armstrong demonstrated, but the metaphorical ones too.

Most people know that Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping violations, but the riders who took second place in six of those races also were suspended for doping at various times in their careers. The other runner-up was linked to a doping scandal but controversially cleared.

Many former professionals who admitted to doping say the same thing: “I had to, because everybody else was doing it.” In pro cycling, cutting corners is a survival skill.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes liked to remind us, though, “men must turn square corners when they deal with the government.” And the recent $5 million settlement in a whistleblower suit against Lance Armstrong shows what happens when corner-cutting cyclists crash into that rule.

In that case, Armstrong’s former teammate, Floyd Landis — himself an admitted doper — sued Armstrong and his team, Tailwind, on behalf of the United States Postal Service, which sponsored the team. Landis claimed that the USPS’s contracts with Armstrong’s team prohibited the team from violating cycling’s rules about drugs and doping, and that when they violated those rules, they also violated the False Claims Act.

The government agreed with Landis and joined the suit, demanding that Armstrong and Tailwind return the money the USPS had paid.

Armstrong’s defense wasn’t that he didn’t cheat. That would have been hard to argue, because he already told Oprah Winfrey and her audience that he did. Instead, his main defense was that the government wasn’t harmed.

That’s a risky argument. It can be hard to convince either a judge or a jury that even though you cheated, both in the Tour de France and on a government contract, you still shouldn’t be punished.

With the trial less than a month away, both Armstrong and the government saw the risks of trial and settled for $5 million — a nice round number for Armstrong to pay for the failure to turn square corners.

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