Pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. likely will pay about $75 million to settle federal regulators' charges that it improperly manipulated its inventory of drugs to inflate its reported sales, a person familiar with the matter said yesterday.

The Securities and Exchange Commission could announce the settlement with Bristol-Myers today, the person said on condition of anonymity, confirming a report by the Wall Street Journal.

It would be one of the largest SEC penalties in recent years against a viable company that continues to operate. In 2002, Xerox Corp. paid a $10 million fine, the largest ever at the time, to resolve allegations of accounting fraud.

Spokesmen for Bristol-Myers, based in New York but with research headquarters in Princeton, N.J., could not be reached immediately for comment.

The SEC, the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey have been investigating a Bristol-Myers program that offered wholesalers huge discounts to buy more prescription medicines than they could sell.

The inventory manipulation, known as "channel stuffing," is not illegal, but some industry observers have called the level at Bristol-Myers excessive. It occurred during a period when the company was trying to keep pace with rivals posting double-digit profit growth. Some industry experts have questioned whether key Bristol-Myers managers benefited financially through bigger bonuses based on company sales levels.

During 2003's fourth quarter, Bristol-Myers took a $225 million charge to establish reserves for liabilities stemming from the pending government investigations and civil litigation. Some analysts said that could be a sign the company was close to settling the government cases.