Socialite pleads guilty to misbranding drug tied to NFL suspensions

Nikki Haskell exits the Manhattan Federal Court in New York, March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (Reuters)

By Nate Raymond NEW YORK (Reuters) - A socialite whose weight-loss supplement was linked to suspensions of several NFL players in 2008 for banned substances pleaded guilty on Wednesday to drug misbranding. Nikki Haskell and her company, Balanced Health Products Inc, pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal district court to a misdemeanor count of misbranding in connection with the sale of a pill called StarCaps, whose label did not disclose the presence of a diuretic called bumetanide. Haskell, who billed herself as the "Diet Queen to the Stars," has been an occasional presence in celebrity social circles, with the New York Post's Page Six gossip column reporting her appearance at events involving Aretha Franklin and Ivanka Trump. She was the chief executive of Balanced Health, which marketed StarCaps as an "all natural diet supplement" containing papaya and garlic. But in 2008, Balanced Health launched a recall of StarCaps citing the presence of bumetanide, a drug used to treat heart failure, renal failure and high blood pressure that carries health risks including fluid and electrolyte loss. The substance also was banned as a potential steroid-masking agent by sports organizations including the National Football League, which in 2006 added Balanced Health Products to its list a prohibited dietary supplement companies. The NFL noted its ban of Balanced Health in 2008 as it issued four-game suspensions to six players on the New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings who tested positive for banned substances. That same year, two other players, Jamar Nesbit of the Atlanta Falcons and Grady Jackson of the Saints, sued Haskell and her company after receiving four-game suspensions because they tested positive for bumetanide. Haskell subsequently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2010, listing potential multimillion-dollar claims by the NFL, players and teams including the Saints, Vikings, Falcons and Texans. Haskell faces a maximum of a year in prison, though her lawyer, Chris Mancini, said under a plea deal she could ultimately have to pay a fine of only $60,000 to $100,000. Mancini said Haskell didn't know StarCaps contained bumetanide, which he said was added by the product's manufacturer in Peru. "Ms. Haskell had no knowledge of the presence of bumetanide and that's why she's not being charged with a felony," he said. Sentencing is scheduled for June 30. Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, declined comment. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Steve Orlofsky)