U.S. says Herbalife to pay $123.1 million to resolve China bribery case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Herbalife Nutrition Ltd will pay $123.1 million to settle criminal and civil charges it bribed Chinese officials in government agencies and media outlets to boost its business in China, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: A Herbalife sign is shown on a building in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 19,2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The multi-level marketing company, whose products include dietary supplements, entered a three-year deferred prosecution agreement in which it admitted to conspiring to violate the books and records provision of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, an anti-bribery law.

Authorities said Herbalife schemed from 2007 to 2016 to bribe Chinese officials with cash, entertainment, meals and travel to obtain direct selling licenses, reduce government scrutiny and suppress negative coverage by state-controlled media.

China accounted for 19% of Herbalife’s $4.49 billion of net sales in 2016, up from 7% in 2006, regulatory filings show.

Herbalife approved “extensive and systematic corrupt payments” to Chinese officials, while falsifying records to make its bribes appear as legitimate business expenses, Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss in Manhattan said in a statement.

The company will pay a $55.74 million criminal fine, plus $67.31 million in disgorgement and interest to resolve a related U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission civil case.

Herbalife, which has offices in Los Angeles, said it previously set aside funds for the settlement, which also requires that it upgrade compliance procedures.

Last November, U.S. prosecutors filed related corruption charges against Yanliang Li, who led Herbalife’s Chinese unit, and Hongwei Yang, who led its external affairs department. Both are Chinese citizens and remain at large.

Six weeks earlier, Herbalife agreed to pay $20 million to settle SEC charges it misled investors about its Chinese business.

Carl Icahn, the activist investor, owns 15.5% of Herbalife.

Hedge fund manager William Ackman bet $1 billion against Herbalife starting in 2012, saying it violated Chinese direct-selling laws and was a pyramid scheme. He unwound his position as Herbalife’s stock price kept rising.

Herbalife shares fell 1.2% to $49.10 early Friday afternoon.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Richard Chang