By Mark Zalewski
USADA moving forward with Leogrande arbitration
Rock Racing's Kayle Leogrande is suing former team soigneur Suzanne Sonye and former professional cyclist Matt Decanio for slander over an illegally taped phone conversation allegedly made by Decanio in which Sonye made doping allegations against Leogrande. The allegations relate to an arbitration of Leogrande by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that was also the subject of a lawsuit by Leogrande against USADA in January. Decanio posted the phone conversation on his Stolen Underground web site in February 2008.
The USADA arbitration is over an anti-doping control taken from Leogrande during the 2007 Superweek series, in which USADA alleges Leogrande intentionally contaminated it with soap while giving the sample. Sonye discussed this during her phone conversation with Decanio and also gave a first-person account in an affidavit to USADA last fall. Leogrande filed a lawsuit seeking to bar USADA from testing the B-sample in its investigation, arguing that since the A-sample did not test positive USADA had no legal authority to test the B-sample without the rider's permission - even to test for contamination.
Neither USADA or Leogrande's attorney Howard Jacobs would confirm or deny the status or even existence of the arbitration. "I am not going to talk about if there even is an investigation by USADA - USADA is not talking about it and neither am I," he said. "If you read the complaint it does not mention USADA." However, sources involved with the USADA investigation and arbitration of Leogrande confirmed with Cyclingnews that it is moving forward.
In court documents obtained by Cyclingnews Leogrande is seeking monetary damages from Sonye and Decanio for defamation and slander by making statements they knew to be false and making them public. "We want the defendants to be held responsible and as civil cases go that usually involves a monetary form," said Leogrande's attorney Jacobs, a prominent athlete lawyer who has worked on many cases for cyclists such as Floyd Landis.
In response Sonye's attorney, Thomas Fitzgibbon, filed a motion to strike, alleging that the lawsuit against Sonye is an intentional move to intimidate her regarding her testimony in the USADA case against Leogrande. The motion refers to this as a "strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP)". While not specifically argued in the motion, Fitzgibbon said that the intimidation factor is clear since Sonye does not have the financial assets to make the lawsuit worthwhile for Leogrande.
Sonye signed the USADA affidavit in November of 2007 in which is says she had first-hand knowledge of the contaminated sample in question as well as Leogrande's doping practices, including use of testosterone and Erythropoietin (EPO). In the affidavit Sonye says Leogrande confided in her during the Superweek series and that she alerted management as to what to do. The strike motion indicated she is the top witness against Leogrande in the arbitration.
Of the many arguments set forth in the strike motion, the SLAPP accusation is the central one, with similarities to a 'whistle-blower' case. It argues that the SLAPP status would afford Sonye additional protections as the recorded phone call, "was a nearly verbatim recitation of the statements in the Affidavit at the center of the USADA Arbitration". Another argument is that Sonye herself should not be liable since she was illegally recorded by Decanio and did not knowingly participate in or know about the Internet posting of the conversation.
"We will respond on the motion to strike and the court will rule on it and move forward," said Jacobs for Leogrande. "It is somewhat complicated and convoluted - I didn't write it I just try to interpret it. We don't think there is any basis for it and we will be responding."
Decanio did not return Cyclingnews' request for comment, and Fitzgibbon said he has not appeared at any of the legal proceedings. Court records indicate Decanio has not retained legal counsel either. Decanio is well-known in the U.S. cycling community as a former professional that admitted to using EPO during the 2003 season. He has since returned to the sport and started a controversial crusade against doping in cycling, racing on and off in recent years.
During this entire process Leogrande has been racing for the Rock Racing team with no sign of stopping. Owner Michael Ball told Cyclingnews that he continues to stand by his riders, including Leogrande. "As I've said all along, we believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty," said Ball. "I stand by that."