Greek prime minister steps in to police exploding Novartis bribery investigation

Novartis is facing allegations that it bribed Greek politicians to boost sales during a time when the country was facing financial collapse. (Andrew/Flickr)

Just days after 10 former ministers in Greece were implicated in bribery allegations against Novartis, the country’s prime minister is calling for a special parliamentary committee to investigate the charges, which have been pegged as slanderous by some politicians pulled into the widening scandal.

Meanwhile, three former Novartis executives believed to have provided the meat of the allegations have come under fire, even as their lawyer fights to shield their identities.

The investigation targeting Novartis’s Greece offices has been going on since last January, but it blew up earlier this week when news emerged that the case would be submitted to the Greek parliament, which would then decide whether to prosecute the 10 politicians. Novartis is the target of allegations that it bribed doctors and government officials to help boost sales of its drugs.

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Now Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants the special committee to look into allegations that the 10 politicians received millions of euros in exchange for fixing drug prices and granting other favors to Novartis, according to local press reports.

A spokesman for Novartis told FiercePharma that the company continues “to cooperate with requests from local and foreign authorities.” Novartis has not received an indictment related to the investigation in Greece, he added.

According to press accounts of the prosecutors’ report, the allegations of bribery stemmed from testimony from three witnesses who worked for Novartis. The witnesses spoke to the FBI, which joined in the investigation in Greece. The employees reported that Greece’s health minister from 2006 to 2009 took €40 million ($49 million) in exchange for ordering “a huge amount” of Novartis products, according to The Greek Reporter. The health minister working between 2009 and 2010 allegedly accepted €120,000 ($147,000) from the company and laundered it through a computer hardware firm, the news organization added.

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At least one of the politicians named in the report wants the identities of the three Novartis witnesses to be revealed. Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was the health minister from 2006 to 2009 and now serves as European commissioner for migration and home affairs, held a press conference Friday during which he said he will file a lawsuit demanding the names of the witnesses be made public, according to Politico.

“It is conspiracy, unbelievable lies [that] do not bear the characteristics of a witness testimony so that it can be evaluated,” Avramopoulos said of the anonymous tips. “They have the obvious purpose of guiding my slander and defamation.”

Earlier this week, Greece’s former deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos called his inclusion in the Novartis investigation “a cheap political diversion.”

One former Novartis executive is speaking out, too. Konstantinos Frouzis, a former vice president of Novartis in Greece, said on Facebook Wednesday that he thinks the prosecutors should make their Novartis report public and that the whole affair is a “crude prank.” He reportedly surrendered his passport to prosecutors.

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One of the reasons the Novartis case has gripped Greece is that the country was on the brink of financial collapse during part of the time period that’s under scrutiny, 2006 to 2015. The prosecutors believe that with the bribes estimated to be in the millions of euros, the loss to the country could have been in the billions, according to the New York Times.

Novartis, for its part, has revised its global and ethics policies in the wake of investigations in Greece and other countries, including Korea. The changes included starting up training programs that teach executives in each country to make decisions that comply with local regulations. "Wherever Novartis does business we are committed to the same high standards of ethical business conduct and regulatory compliance," the spokesman said.