- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

PROVIDENCE, R.I. | A Chinese company thought to have once been responsible for most of the human growth hormone smuggled into the United States pleaded guilty along with its CEO Wednesday to illegally selling the drug and agreed to pay $7.5 million.

Lei Jin and his company, Genescience Pharmaceutical Co., entered the pleas through their attorneys in U.S. District Court in Providence. They admitted illegally shipping and selling the muscle-building drug, under the brand name Jintropin, without the required approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

The company, based in Changchun, China, was charged in 2007 during a massive crackdown on illegal sports doping, dubbed Operation Raw Deal, in which more than 120 people were arrested and 11.4 million doses of drugs were seized.

The investigation crippled the company, which the government thinks was responsible for nearly 90 percent of the illegal human growth hormone smuggled into the U.S., and weakened the global market of illicit performance-enhancing drugs, said FDA Special Agent Jason Simonian.

Federal investigators in New England used wire transfers and e-mails from the company to track shipments around the world, Mr. Simonian said.

As part of the plea agreement, the company and Jin will forfeit $4.5 million and set up a $3 million fund that will work against doping in sports by providing grants for education and scientific research. The Rhode Island Foundation will administer the fund.

John Tarantino, an attorney for the company, declined to comment Wednesday. An attorney for Jin did not return a call seeking comment.

Jin was initially indicted on charges including money laundering and smuggling goods into the U.S., but the plea agreement required him to admit only to a single misdemeanor count of introducing an unapproved drug into interstate commerce. He also received five years of probation and was ordered not to sell other drugs to U.S. customers during that time without the approval of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The FDA closely regulates the use of human growth hormone, allowing it to be prescribed for certain medical conditions but not for anti-aging, bodybuilding or weight loss. In 2007, actor Sylvester Stallone was convicted of importing dozens of vials of Jintropin into Australia. He later defended its use.

Federal investigators have stepped up efforts in recent years to target companies that distribute steroids and human growth hormone and have raided compounding pharmacies suspected of illicitly supplying the drugs to professional athletes and others.

In January 2009, for instance, a New Jersey businessman convicted in Rhode Island of recruiting doctors to write bogus prescriptions for bodybuilding customers they had never met was sentenced to two years in prison.

“We’ve vertically taken out every step of the process,” Mr. Simonian said. “It shows the bad guys that no matter where they are in the world, we have the ability to reach out and take their money, and I think that’s one of the most significant parts of the case.”