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7/25/2004

Metabolife, founder charged with lying to FDA

The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — Federal charges that Metabolife International Inc. lied to the Food and Drug Administration about the dangers of a popular diet supplement are based on statements that were taken out of context, an attorney for the company said.

Metabolife and Michael J. Ellis, who founded the San Diego company, were charged Thursday with six counts of making false statements to the FDA and two counts of trying to obstruct the agency’s attempt to regulate supplements containing ephedra, the now-banned herbal stimulant.

Ephedra has been linked to several deaths, including that of Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles who died during spring training last year.

Metabolife dismissed the allegations as “utterly baseless.”

“The government has concocted a hypertechnical violation by taking statements to a regulatory agency out of context,” attorney Steve Mansfield said.

Mansfield also accused the government of “heavy-handed and aggressive tactics” — including allegedly confronting people at gunpoint during the probe.

The Internal Revenue Service, the lead agency in the investigation, denied the charge. “We’ve conducted ourselves in a fair and businesslike manner,” said Tami Stine, a spokeswoman for the IRS’s criminal investigation division. IRS agents had raided company headquarters in July 2002, removing documents as part of an income tax investigation, authorities said at the time.

An attorney for Ellis, 51, did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Until the Bush administration halted sales of ephedra earlier this year, Metabolife had been one of the nation’s biggest sellers of dietary supplements, based largely on sales of its ephedra-based Metabolife 356.