NEW YORK - The world's largest direct seller of cosmetics, Avon Products Inc., will pay $135 million to settle criminal and civil charges after its China unit pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing officials there.
Avon China entered the plea in federal court in Manhattan, admitting it disguised $8 million in gifts its employees gave to Chinese government officials from at least 2004 through late 2008 to gain access to officials who oversaw direct selling regulations. It admitted concealing and disguising cash, nonbusiness meals, travel, and entertainment it provided to obtain business benefits.
Avon, headquartered in Manhattan, agreed to pay $68 million in criminal penalties and nearly an equal amount in disgorgement and prejudgment interest to settle a civil case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The SEC said Avon received the first direct selling business license in China in March 2006 as it showered officials with gifts including Louis Vuitton merchandise, Gucci bags, and Tiffany pens.
"Avon's subsidiary in China paid millions of dollars to government officials to obtain a direct selling license and gain an edge over their competitors, and the company reaped substantial financial benefits as a result," said Scott W. Friestad, an associate director in the SEC's Division of Enforcement.
Federal prosecutors entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the parent company, saying it had cooperated by conducting an extensive internal probe and by making its U.S. and foreign employees available for interviews.