Veterans' lawsuit claims Big Pharma bribes in Iraq helped finance terrorism

Pharma companies have faced a gamut of allegations over the years, but a new lawsuit ups the ante by alleging several drugmakers paid bribes in Iraq that helped fuel terrorism. 

Filed on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the lawsuit alleged that top pharma companies Pfizer, Roche, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca paid bribes to secure healthcare contracts in Iraq. Those payments ultimately supported terrorism that hurt or killed U.S. service members, the plaintiffs alleged. 

More than 100 veterans or their family members are suing the drugmakers under the Anti-Terrorism Act. 

The lawsuit (PDF) said the "terrorist-finance mechanism was straightforward: The terrorists openly controlled the Iraqi ministry in charge of importing medical goods and defendants—all of which are large Western medical-supply companies—obtained lucrative contracts from that ministry by making corrupt payments to the terrorists who ran it." 

Plaintiffs alleged that the companies "knew or recklessly disregarded that their corrupt transactions helped finance … attacks on Americans." 

A Pfizer spokesperson said the company "categorically denies any wrongdoing." Roche said it doesn't comment on ongoing lawsuits. An AstraZeneca representative said the company has not been served with the lawsuit.

"But, I can tell you that we have a zero-tolerance policy for bribery and corruption," AstraZeneca's spokesperson said via email. "As a company, we are focused on bringing life-saving medicines to patients, and we are disheartened that anyone would suggest we are connected to terrorism-related activity."

Johnson & Johnson didn't respond to a request for comment.

The suit says the illicit payments date back to the Saddam Hussein regime and have continued since. According to the attorneys, Iraq's government-run healthcare system has given officials in the country "significant leverage" over companies looking to crack into the market. It's also created a situation of "pervasive corruption," according to the filing.

When Saddam's government collapsed and the Ministry of Health came under the control of Shiite terrorists, the bribes continued, the plaintiffs contend.

Over the past decade, a number of drugmakers have settled allegations of bribery and kickbacks overseas, including in Iraq, some of them related to the U.N. Oil for Food program. Johnson & Johnson agreed in 2011 to pay $70 million to settle claims that it bribed officials in Greece, Poland and Romania, and paid kickbacks to the former Iraqi government under the U.N. program.

Two Washington, D.C., law firms are handling the complaint, saying in a statement they filed the lawsuit after investigating for thousands of hours. The allegations are based on information from 12 confidential witnesses, private and public reports, contracts, emails and more, including even documents published by WikiLeaks, according to the suit.