Federal Court Brings Charges against Producer of Dietary Supplements

A socialite who called herself the “Diet Queen to the Stars” was fined $60,000 on June 20, 2014 by a United States magistrate judge for misbranding a weight-loss supplement that was previously linked to suspensions of several National Football League players in 2008. Nikki Haskell and her now-obsolete company, Balanced Health Products, Inc., were sentenced by a federal judge in Manhattan, New York after issuing a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge involving the sale of a drug called StarCaps.

Prosecutors had initially pursued a $100,000 fine. Under a plea agreement announced in March 2014, Haskell, 73, also faced up to six months in prison. Haskell told the judge that she was “so remorseful for this” and that it was “never [her] intent to do anything inappropriate [her] entire life.”

Haskell, a onetime television show host, has occasionally appeared in the gossip column in the New York Post and had previously billed herself as the “Diet Queen to the Stars.” She was the chief executive of Balanced Health, the company that marketed the garlic-and papaya-containing StarCaps as an “all-natural diet supplement.”

However, in 2008, Balanced Health issued a voluntary recall of the product, citing the presence of bumetanide, which is used to treat high blood pressure, swelling, renal failure, and heart failure. It was also recalled because it carries serious health risks including electrolyte and fluid loss. Bumetanide is banned by the NFL and several other sports organizations as a potential steroid-masking agent.

During the hearing, Haskell claimed that she was unaware that StarCaps contained bumetanide, adding that she had never heard of the product until she received word of football players using it. In 2008, the NFL cited the product when it announced four-game suspensions to six players on the Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, and New Orleans Saints who tested positive for several banned substances.

That same year, two other players, Grady Jackson of the Saints and Jamar Nesbit of the Atlanta Falcons, filed a lawsuit against Haskell and her company after the players tested positive for bumetanide and were consequently suspended from four games. In 2010, Haskell filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing potential multimillion-dollar lawsuits filed by the NFL, its players, and teams including the Texans, Falcons, Vikings, and Saints.

Ahead of the June 2014 hearing, Nesbit sent a letter to United States Magistrate Judge Netburn requesting that part of Haskell’s sentence include what Haskell’s lawyer, Chris Manicini, described as a “shocking” amount of money. A lawyer for Nesbit was not immediately available for comment.

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Morey, the NFL had known since 2006 that the product in question contained bumetanide, but the organization allegedly failed to tell anyone. She said that this apparent lack of legal obligation to inform the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was “unfortunate,” although the agency had apparently found no evidence of injuries or deaths of anyone taking StarCaps.

Philip Walsky, acting director of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, reported that there is a strict regulatory process in the United States for the dispensing and distribution of prescription drugs. According to Walsky, dietary supplements cannot legally contain these drugs. He maintains that the FDA will continue its vigilance in investigating the dietary supplement market.