Case against cyclist turns a bit wobbly

Times Staff Writer

The French laboratory that produced incriminating doping results against Tour de France champion Floyd Landis may have allowed improper access to the American cyclist’s urine samples, lab documents show -- one of a number of errors that could jeopardize the case against Landis.

A similar error, committed by the same lab in 2005, resulted in the rare dismissal of doping charges against Spanish cyclist Inigo Landaluze in December.

Lab records turned over to Landis defense lawyers and reviewed by The Times show that two technicians from the French government-owned lab were involved in both the original urine analysis and a second, validating test. International lab standards prohibit technicians from participating in both tests to prevent them from validating their own findings.


It was not clear in the records whether the technicians -- Esther Cerpolini and Cynthia Mongongu of Laboratorie National Depistage du Dopage -- played roles significant enough in both tests to disqualify the findings. Landis attorneys have asked arbitrators to let them question the technicians.

In a decision issued Dec. 19, 2006, the arbitrators in the Landaluze case underscored the risks of technicians violating the lab standards. Their written finding said it is “forbidden that the same analyst handles or manipulates” both the original and validation samples. “The applicable rule is clear and devoid of any flexibility,” they wrote.

Based on tests of urine samples by the lab in the Paris suburb of Chatenay-Malabry, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accused Landis of doping with testosterone during last summer’s three-week French road race.

Much is at stake for both sides. The cyclist, who lives in Murrieta, faces a two-year suspension and loss of his Tour title if the doping charge is upheld. In his defense, Landis has launched the most serious and sustained attack on the international sports anti-doping program and its procedures since it was established in 2000.

Lab records produced in the legal battle show a number of potentially troublesome procedural problems that could undermine the case against Landis. For example:

* A document in the case was altered anonymously after Landis questioned its accuracy. The altered version apparently was certified as “original.”

The document was in the files of French anti-doping authorities, who have brought a separate case against the cyclist. It is unclear whether lab employees or anti-doping officials made the changes.

* The lab may have operated one crucial piece of testing equipment under conditions that violated its manufacturers’ specifications, possibly because it did not have the operating manual. Furthermore, the software installed in the machine was 10 years old, based on an operating system no longer in use, and was designed for a different piece of equipment. Landis contends improper operation could produce erroneous readings.

The lab has insisted the instrument was in proper working order. The machine produced a carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry reading purportedly showing the presence of artificial testosterone in Landis’ urine sample, the key analytical evidence against the rider.

* The lab was in possession of documents clearly linking Landis to his sample, a possible violation of anti-doping rules requiring that all samples handled by a testing lab be anonymous. At least one such document was provided by the French anti-doping agency to Landis’ attorneys, who contend it came from the lab.

But potentially most troublesome were questionable procedures involving handling of the urine samples. Landis attorneys have filed an extensive request for more lab documents and are seeking depositions of lab personnel.

A three-member arbitration panel is scheduled to hear Landis’ appeal of doping charges at a public hearing beginning May 14.

USADA General Counsel Travis Tygart declined to comment on the points raised in the discovery request, citing agency rules forbidding him to discuss ongoing cases.

Filings in the arbitration case also shed light on the anti-doping agency’s rationale for asking the French lab to also retest nine of Landis’ urine samples taken during and after the 2006 Tour de France. The samples at issue are B samples corresponding to A samples found to be clean.

The USADA contends that the previous tests did not “definitively establish” that the samples were clean, and the agency wants to subject them to the more sophisticated carbon isotope test.

The agency acknowledged in papers filed with the arbitrators that it would expect to use any positive results from the retests as evidence against Landis. The cyclist’s lawyers maintain that this would violate USADA and World Anti-Doping Agency regulations, which state that an analytical sample can be deemed positive only if the A and B results match.

Because the A samples have already been ruled negative, and in most cases no longer exist, the required match between A and B cannot be present, Landis argues.

The arbitration panel held a closed-door session Thursday to consider Landis’ request for documents and for testimony from lab employees. The panel also considered the USADA’s request to retest the nine samples.