The performance-enhancing drug allegations continue to pile up against Lance Armstrong – and this time they involve corporate sponsor Nike .
On Tuesday, the New York Daily News' well-regarded investigative reporter Michael O'Keefe reported Nike paid $500,000 to Hein Verbruggen, ex-president of the Union Cycliste Internationale, to cover up a positive drug test by Mr. Armstrong. If true, the charge would have far-reaching implications for Nike , the world's largest athletic company with $21 billion in annual revenue in 2011.
But the Swoosh was quick to fire back against the allegations. Mark Fabiani, the former White House special counsel hired by Mr. Armstrong, blasted the report in an interview with Advertising Age Tuesday night. Sponsor Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, issued another public statement of support for Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor.
"In response to the offensive allegations in today's New York Daily News, Nike vehemently denies that it paid former UCI president Hein Verbruggen $500,000 to cover up a positive drug test ," said Nike in a statement. "Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs."
In a telephone interview with Ad Age , Mr. Fabiani said "there's not a shred of evidence" Nike paid bribe money to protect its athletic endorser. The Daily News' Nike bribery allegations are based on the 2006 testimony of Kathy LeMond, wife of American cyclist Greg LeMond, Mr. Fabiani told Ad Age .
"She's a noted and confirmed Lance hater from way back. We've never seen a shred of evidence it's true. It's not something that 's new – these are seven-year old allegations. Nobody was able to prove it then. Nobody's been able to prove it for the last seven years. Other than revisiting seven-year old allegations, I don't think the New York Daily News did anything to prove it today."
Mr. Armstrong signed a three-year deal with A-B to endorse its Michelob Ultra beer brand in 2009. A-B has consistently supported Mr. Armstrong and did so again Tuesday. "Our current relationship with Lance remains unchanged," said Paul Chibe, A-B's VP-U.S. marketing, in a statement to Ad Age .
Some of Mr. Armstrong's corporate sponsors, such as A-B, continue to stand firm. But Team Armstrong is clearly depending on experts like Mr. Fabiani to add muscle to its legal defense against U.S. federal and other international sports investigations.
Mr. Fabiani specializes in helping individuals and companies through crisis PR situations. He's been working with Team Armstrong since the summer. Newsweek called him the "Master of Disaster" when he was defending U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton during the Whitewater scandals of the 1990s. He served as deputy campaign manger for U.S. Presidential candidate Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, then spearheaded Gore's communications during the Florida vote recount controversy.