Avon's Cramb gave Citi bribery probe info: source

By Aruna Viswanatha and Jessica Wohl

Avon Products

Chuck Cramb, Avon's vice chairman, Developed Market Group, and interim chief finance officer, spoke with Citigroup analyst Wendy Nicholson about a criminal investigation into whether Avon paid bribes overseas, according to a report that Nicholson issued in May.

"While Avon has expanded its initial internal investigation in China to other international markets, it appears at this point that the real wrongdoings are confined to China," Nicholson wrote in her May 25 research note.

That contact between Cramb, a longtime executive in the household products industry, and Nicholson, a longtime analyst in the sector, is the focus of the government's Regulation FD investigation that Avon disclosed last week, that person said.

Avon said on Tuesday that it would not comment on ongoing investigations, and that it was cooperating in the matter. A Citi spokeswoman and an SEC spokeswoman declined to comment.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adopted Regulation FD, short for "fair disclosure," in 2000 to prevent companies from tipping off analysts and investors about material information.

Nicholson's report came at a time when investors were concerned that the probe had expanded into other countries where Avon operates.

Last week, the door-to-door beauty company said that it had received a subpoena from the SEC on October 26. Avon, in its quarterly filing, said the SEC was seeking information from the company about its "contacts and communications with certain financial analysts and other representatives of the financial community."

The company did not disclose which people or information were at issue.

However, the person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday that the SEC's investigation had been prompted by a May 25 report issued by Nicholson.

In that report, Nicholson said that she had "recently" met with Cramb, Avon's CFO since 2005 and its CFO on an interim basis since February.

China "seems to be the focus of the criminal investigation, and it seems to be the area of most genuine concern," Nicholson wrote.

The company disclosed that it had opened an internal investigation in 2008 into whether it had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars U.S.-linked companies from paying bribes to officials of foreign governments.

Avon has fired several of its China-based managers, and has said that it expanded its investigation and a review of its compliance program to additional countries, but the company has limited its discussion of any federal probes into the matter.

Cramb joined Avon as its CFO in late 2005 after a 35-year career at Gillette Co, including serving as the razor maker's CFO from 1997 to 2005. He was named vice chairman of Avon's newly created developed market group in February and moved into the role of interim CFO at that time.

(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha in Washington and Jessica Wohl in Chicago)