How Does Harris View Big Business? Her Time as California’s Top Lawyer Offers Clues


Ms. Harris told her team to study the matter, but to avoid making requests for information that Herbalife would have to disclose publicly — a move that might affect the company’s share price.

“We need to find out if Herbalife has violated the law,” a former senior lieutenant, Nathan Barankin, recalled Ms. Harris saying, “but we should not go about our business of figuring that out in a way where we are being used to make one billionaire richer than another one.”

Her office met with consumers who said the company had deceived them, but ultimately the lawyers came to believe that the 1986 state order contained too many loopholes to make a successful case, said two aides to Ms. Harris from that time.

Other Herbalife investigations continued. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission won an injunction barring the marketer from making deceptive claims about distributors income opportunities. In 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission won a $20 million settlement related to false claims about Herbalife’s Chinese operations. And this past summer, the Justice Department announced a deferred-prosecution agreement in which the company admitted to corrupt business practices in China.

In 2012, the British oil driller BP announced plans to sell a Los Angeles area refinery and 800 Arco gas stations in California and two other states to Tesoro, the San Antonio-based refining company. Consumer activists opposed the $2.4 billion deal, saying it could spark a price hike for California motorists by reducing refining capacity in the state.

Ms. Harris and the F.T.C. — which had concluded that combining a Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, Calif., with the BP refinery in nearby Carson was unlikely to raise prices — both approved the deal. Ms. Harris extracted commitments that the Arco chain would continue to sell lower-cost gas, and that the refineries would reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

The price of regular unleaded gas in California fell in the years that followed. But temporary spikes piqued concerns. During the summer of 2015, with gas prices pushing toward $4, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog wrote to Ms. Harris with an analysis showing that refiners were routinely jacking up prices by 30 cents or more per gallon. No response was apparent until a year later, when Ms. Harris, running for the Senate, subpoenaed Tesoro and other major oil companies for information on gas pricing.

She left the attorney general’s office six months later, and the status of that investigation is unclear.



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