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'Snake Oil Salesmen' Take The 5th

A California businessman who received a presidential pardon for a fraud conviction took the Fifth Amendment on Monday before a Senate panel investigating allegedly bogus products sold mainly to the elderly.

Glenn Braswell, who was pardoned by President Clinton in January for a 1983 mail fraud conviction stemming from his sale of a product that he falsely claimed cured baldness, invoked his constitutional protection against self-incrimination and refused to answer the questions of lawmakers at a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

The panel is probing the marketing of so-called "anti-aging" products and other dietary supplements.

Ron Tepper, the editor of Braswell's Journal of Longevity magazine, also asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Committee members had sought to question them on whether their products actually improved memory, increased sex drive and slowed aging as advertisements promised.

The chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., did not immediately say whether the panel would vote to compel their testimony by granting limited immunity from prosecution.

CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports Braswell's company made a mistake in sending his magazine to the committee chairman's wife.

"These are clearly cases of 21st century snake oil salesmen," Breaux said. "They sell slick-looking advertisements that look like medical journals but take advantage of the elderly by putting both their health and their finances at risk. It is clearly fraudulent and it simply will not stand."

An estimated 60 percent of Americans take some form of supplement with no apparent health problems. But lawmakers and health experts say some anti-aging products can pose health risks, particularly to the elderly, and unlike new prescription and over-the-counter drugs, U.S. law does not require them to undergo pre-market approval for safety and efficacy.

The General Accounting Office, which conducts investigations for lawmakers, warned the Senate committee that seniors may be particularly at risk of "physical harm from the use of anti-aging alternative medicine products."

During the hearing, experts warned of the health risks associated with mixing certain herbal and non-herbal supplements with prescription drugs and other FDA-approved medication taken by millions of seniors.

St. John's Wort, for example, may reduce the effectiveness of certain antiviral drugs. Other compounds used in supplements can cause vomiting, breathing problems, convulsions, and even coma and death when used in large amounts.

Breaux said legislative action may be needed to protect seniors, many of whom use anti-aging products and other dietary supplements as an alternative to traditional treatments or to save money on expensive prescription drugs.

"We're going to explore it," Breaux told Reuters, referring to legislation that would give federal regulators new tools o ensure the safety of supplements and keep companies from making false claims about their products.

Mr. Clinton granted 177 pardons and clemencies just before leaving office in January. Braswell's pardon became one of the most criticized after it was learned the president's brother-in-law had been paid for working on the case.

Hugh Rodham received $400,000 in fees for helping Braswell and another man who received a commutation of sentence but bowed to the demands of his sister — now-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. — to return the money.

Months earlier, in September 2000, then-GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush and the Florida Republican Party returned more than $200,000 in political donations from Braswell because of his troubled products and his fraud conviction.

© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report

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