- Associated Press - Friday, August 10, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge had tough questions for U.S. anti-doping officials about the fairness of their effort to prove seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong cheated, grilling them at length in a hearing Friday.

But U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks also asked attorneys for the cyclist why the federal court should step into an arbitration process already set up to handle doping cases in sports.

In a 2 1/2-hour session, Sparks criticized USADA about the vagueness of its charges and wondered whether Armstrong would get a legitimate chance to defend himself against allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Sparks also questioned USADA officials about why they don’t turn their evidence over to the International Cycling Union, which has tried to wrest control of the Armstrong case from USADA in recent days.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accuses Armstrong of using steroids and blood boosters to win the Tour from 1999-2005, and leading a complex doping program on his teams. If found guilty, he faces a lifetime ban from the sport and could be stripped of his titles.

Armstrong, who denies doping, filed the lawsuit now before Sparks, asking the federal court to block USADA’s case. He claims the agency’s arbitration process and rules of evidence violate his constitutional right to due process.

Sparks did not consider the evidence against Armstrong and made no ruling Friday. The judge gave the lawyers another week to file more legal briefs and suggested he will rule before the Aug. 23 deadline USADA imposed on Armstrong to either take the case to arbitration or accept sanctions.

Sparks gave no indication how he would rule, but he was clearly troubled by the vagueness of USADA’s charging letter to Armstrong and the agency’s decision to withhold key information, including the names of witnesses and what they told investigators at this stage.

“No case filed in this court or any court in the United States would go to trial” under similar circumstances, Sparks said.

USADA general counsel Bill Bock countered that Armstrong’s case isn’t a matter for the legal courts, but is subject to the established rules of sports-doping violations and arbitration. Also, USADA has withheld witness names from Armstrong because of fears of intimidation, he said.

Bock said the arbitration system is fair under the law and that the panel appointed in Armstrong’s case likely would order all evidence to be shared with him as the case proceeds.

USADA says Armstrong agreed to the arbitration process when he obtained his professional cycling license through USA Cycling. Bock encouraged Sparks to keep the courts out of the matter.

“(Armstrong) is asking the court to decide matters of international sports law,” Bock said.

The hearing also focused on which sports agency should handle the case. Armstrong and the International Cycling Union allege the Europe-based UCI should have jurisdiction because the charges cover evidence first sent to USA Cycling, which is sanctioned by UCI, and includes drug tests collected by UCI in 2009 and 2010.

“There’s something under the current when UCI says ‘This is our case, USADA step back,’ and USADA says ‘Not on your life,’” Sparks said.

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