WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States accused cyclist Lance Armstrong on Friday of defrauding the U.S. Postal Service by taking its sponsorship money at the same time he was doping and using performance-enhancing drugs in violation of cycling rules.
The government joined a civil suit against Armstrong, stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2012 after accusations he had cheated for years. In January, he said the accusations were true in an interview with television host Oprah Winfrey.
A battle with the U.S. government over civil fraud charges threatens to sap what remains of the once-revered athlete's reputation, and hurt his wallet.
Armstrong and his teammates from Tailwind Sports wore the logo of the U.S. Postal Service during their record-breaking wins.
"This lawsuit is designed to help the Postal Service recoup the tens of millions of dollars it paid out to the Tailwind cycling team based on years of broken promises," Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., said in a statement.
The sponsorship money totaled more than $30 million, the government said.
Armstrong plans to contest the suit because the Postal Service was not actually damaged, his lawyer, Robert Luskin, said.
"The Postal Service's own studies show that the service benefited tremendously from its sponsorship - benefits totaling more than $100 million," the lawyer said in a statement.
Prosecutors have said they do not expect to charge him with a crime.
Former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis filed a sealed whistleblower suit against Armstrong in 2010. The decision by the government to join the suit triggered its unsealing.
"I had come to a point in my life where I decided that I had to tell the truth for the sake of my conscience," Landis, who also admitted to cheating, said in a statement on Friday released by his lawyer.
Armstrong faces other suits arising out of his admission of cheating. This month, marketing firm SCA Promotions Inc alleged in a Texas state court that the cyclist defrauded it of $12.1 million in bonuses plus interest.
In January, two California men sued Armstrong and his book publishers, claiming that his memoirs were filled with lies but were billed as non-fiction.
The U.S. government is suing under the False Claims Act, an 1863 law that encourages private individuals to file suit when they have evidence of fraud involving government money.
When the government believes a suit has merit, it may take over the litigation. The individuals, or whistleblowers, get a portion of the proceeds if the case is successful.
The government joins 20 to 25 percent of all False Claims Act suits filed, and the government almost always wins the cases it joins, said John Phillips, who represents whistleblowers at the Phillips & Cohen law firm.
"That's a very good sign for the case: that the government after its own investigation, after looking at all the facts and the law, has decided to join the case," said Phillips, who is not involved in the Armstrong case.
Since the law was revitalized in 1986, it has been used frequently against military contractors, pharmaceutical companies and hospitals.
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