A few years ago, Robert Luskin got a phone call from Karl Rove.
“Guess who this is?” Luskin recalled Rove saying. “It’s your old client and your new client.”
Rove — a client of Luskin’s since he represented the former aide to President George W. Bush during the Valerie Plame investigation — happened to be sitting next to Lance Armstrong, who Luskin had just signed on to represent in a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles into whether the seven-time Tour de France winner had used performance-enhancing drugs. Luskin, a partner at Washington law firm Patton Boggs, was one of several attorneys Armstrong hired to represent him in the two-year probe that ended in February with no charges being brought.
In June, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed its own doping charges against Armstrong, the same group of attorneys — which also includes sports lawyer Mark Levinstein of Williams & Connolly in D.C. and San Francisco trial attorney John Keker of Keker & Van Nest — reconvened, and Luskin took the lead. Luskin fired off a letter to the agency, attacking what he called the agency’s lack of transparency and due process in charging Armstrong, which he said included the agency coercing other athletes to testify against Armstrong, and refusing to have their conduct reviewed by an independent auditing committee.
Luskin, a veteran white collar defense lawyer, has been a partner at Patton Boggs since 2000 and splits his time between Washington, Martha’s Vineyard and Atlanta. He doesn’t bike, but owns two motorcycles, a 1972 Chevy pickup and a 1971 Blazer. He is a cancer survivor — an experience he said he and Armstrong bonded over — and is the first male attorney on record to wear an earring while arguing a case before the Supreme Court, a distinction he finds amusing to this day. Below is an edited transcript of Luskin’s conversation with Capital Business.
How did you come to represent Armstrong?
We came to each other through a number of different tangent points. His lawyer [Austin trial attorney] Tim Herman knows all the folks [in Austin]. He knows Karl Rove, as does Lance. There was a connection there. Other folks already on the [legal] team, we had worked together closely. They were looking for a range of skills ... it’s like a draft phase, they needed a second-line center and were looking at [other attorneys]. My name had come up to them in a number of different contexts. I talked to Tim Herman for awhile, and spent a bit of time talking to Lance ... I was retained to help Lance in the criminal case. We started our relationship in that context. When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency came up , the same team came together again.
Have you represented professional athletes before? What have you learned about cycling?
No. Mine is generally a white collar practice. I had no experience with professional athletes. It’s no different than any other case. If you’re doing white collar work, generally, and litigation, you get a deep marinade in the substance of whatever it is you’re doing. I’ve represented Massey Energy in a number of criminal cases, including the one arising from [the West Virginia coal mine explosion] two years ago. I learned more about mine safety and mining ventilation than I ever thought I could absorb. Now I’m learning about anti-doping rules and blood science.
The question for Lance is to assess whether and how it’s possible to get a fair hearing in a way that looks and feels like due process. Whether that’s directly with the agency or involves litigation to force them to play fair, that remains to be seen. I’ve never been more unhappy in any case I’ve ever been involved in. It’s pretty ... ironic that an organization whose mission is to ensure a level playing field doesn't begin to understand the need for such a thing when it sets out to discipline an athlete. This is, from my perspective, a unique situation because virtually all the time when I’m dealing with federal prosecutors, they have a very keen sense that justice isn’t done unless justice is done. Simply convicting someone is not a vindication of the process. So in a normal case, I begin in talking with the prosecutors of understanding that we want get to the right result and not necessary do whatever [to reach] the result they’d like to achieve. That’s usually the basis for a shared conversation about the facts. That plays no part in this process. I would’ve liked to have seen an independent review of the proposed charges before the agency proceeded.
In 1995, you caused quite a stir by becoming the first male lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court wearing an earring. What do you think about that now?
There’s a back story. I thought I would take the earring out, but in the middle of the night [before oral argument], I woke up with a brain alert and realized there was some obscure question I didn’t know the answer to. What would I say if someone asked me? I got up at 3 a.m., researched at the office and found the answer ... In the uproar, I forgot to take it out. My general reaction is in a world of human experience, it goes from 1 to 100. All it takes in Washington to punch you through the mainstream is to go from a 1 to a 2.5. I still can’t believe it’s an issue. I still wear it.