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.
USADA officials say UCI's rules, as well as the U.S Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency give the American agency jurisdiction.
Sparks admitted being confused about jurisdiction, noting the agencies seem to have overlapping rules that attempt to preempt each other.
But he also noted that the arbitrators can determine jurisdiction and that Armstrong would be allowed to appeal any rulings to the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
"Why would they not rule for you if it's so clear?" Sparks asked Armstrong attorney Tim Herman. "Where do I have jurisdiction when you can litigate in arbitration?"
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong in June, about four months after a federal grand jury investigation of the cyclist ended four months earlier without any indictments.
Doping charges were also levied against five others associated with his teams during his Tour de France victories. Three cases are still pending and two doctors who worked with the teams have been issued lifetime bans.
USADA officials say they have up to 10 former Armstrong teammates and associates willing to testify against the former lead rider, and blood samples from 2009-2010 that are "fully consistent" with doping.
Armstrong, who was not at the hearing, says he has undergone more than 500 drug tests without testing positive. He retired from cycling in 2011.
"Mr. Armstrong agreed to play by the same rules that apply to every other athlete and we believe he should not be allowed to create a new set of rules that apply only to him," Travis Tygart, chief executive of USADA said in a prepared statement. "From the beginning our investigation has been about ridding sport from anyone in the system that uses their power or influence to encourage or assist athletes in using dangerous performance-enhancing drugs."