Lance Armstrong's whirlwind publicity tour of San Francisco this week was a textbook example of a damage control strategy in which a public figure faced with scandal strenuously seeks to act as if there aren't any problems, according to PR experts quoted by the Associated Press.
"We call it 'brazening it out.' You act as if there's nothing wrong," George Merlis, founder of Experience Media Consulting Group, told the media.
Earlier this week Armstrong, along with San Francisco mayor and California lieutenant governor candidate Gavin Newsom, made an appearance at General Hospital
to tour a breast cancer facility there. Armstrong also took an early morning ride Monday with Oracle Corporation employees
in town for the company's OpenWorld trade show and conference.
The local whirlwind tour was
enough of a hook for AP to hang a story with the following premise:
Under investigation, Lance stays in public gaze: While
prosecutors examine his past as part of a federal investigation into drug use
in pro cycling, Lance Armstrong is sticking to a relentless public schedule of
charity bike rides, speeches, endorsements and meetings with policy groups.
The strategy seems other-worldly when examined up close. As the investigation has seemed increasingly more dangerous to Armstrong's interests, the seven-time Tour de France winner, his attorneys, and his publicists have issued statements suggesting they're ever more blithe regarding its potential consequences.
On Tuesday the Los Angeles Times
reported that a federal grand jury will hear testimony from a former Armstrong associate in which she'll be asked to clarify whether she heard Armstrong admit to his cancer doctors in 1996 that he took performance enhancing drugs. Stephanie McIlvain was an athlete liaison working for Oakley, then one of Armstrong's major sponsors. In a 2004 tape recording reviewed by the Times,
McIlvain is heard seeming to suggest she'd heard Armstrong admit to drug use. In a 2005 deposition in an unrelated civil case, however, she testified she'd never heard Armstrong admit to drug use.
Drug use by Armstrong prior to 1996 would seemingly be of little interest to FDA investigator Jeff Novitzky. The famed BALCO sleuth is investigating claims by former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis that the team leader accommodated systematic doping during the 1996-2004 period when Armstrong's team was sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. Sponsorship contracts allowed the government agency to halt tens of millions of dollars in payments in the event of team-approved doping. If Novitzky were able to prove secret, team-assisted doping, prosecutors could theoretically make a case that Armstrong, and his team's owner, San Francisco financier Thom Weisel, bilked the government out of a mint.
But doping allegations dating to before 1996 don't fit within such a fraud theory. A possible interpretation that's been raised previously is that Novitzky and Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Miller are pursuing perjury claims, rather than fraud. Novitzky has responded to SF Weekly
's request for an interview with a terse "no comment."
In a 2005 deposition, which was part of the same civil case in which McIlvain testified, Armstrong denied that he'd ever taken performance enhancing drugs. If McIlvain were to reverse her 2005 testimony as she answers questions before a Los Angeles federal grand jurydeposition testimony. In July, the New York Daily News reported that retired Tour de France champion Greg LeMond had received a subpoena to provide documents emanating from a lawsuit in which Armstrong's ex-wife testified in a deposition where questions brushed up against allegations Armstrong had taken drugs.
Kristin Armstrong's lawyer, Tim
Herman, advised his client not to answer those questions
. Herman now advises Lance Armstrong in the face of the Novitzky probe.
Also subpoenaed was Betsy Andreu, wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu. Both testified in the 2004 lawsuit that they overheard Armstrong tell his cancer doctors he'd doped prior to 1996. Betsy Andreu has told SF Weekly
that McIlvain was in the same room, and told Andreu she'd overheard the same Armstrong confession that he'd doped. Andreu has also told us she believed Armstrong influenced McIlvain to falsely testify that no such discussion had occured.
Now, McIlvain may have to testify before a federal criminal grand jury with an apparent interest in the truth or falsehood of previous Armstrong-related depositions.
Armstrong's press events in San Francisco this week, meanwhile, included no mention of legal peril.
"Here in San Francisco, we make sure residents have access to quality
healthcare," Newsom was quoted as saying in a press release put out by Armstrong's Livestrong cancer non-profit. "We have been
partnering with Livestrong to not only treat cancer, but ensure that patients receive quality care for overall health and wellness."
If anyone's could help Armstrong seek a public image divorced from reality, perhaps it would be teflon San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom.
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