Four pharmaceutical giants will have to answer to charges that they paid bribes to win healthcare contracts in Iraq and in the process funded terrorists who killed Americans during the war.
The unusual complaint was filed in 2017 and dismissed three years later by a U.S. district court judge in Washington, D.C. But this week, a U.S. appeals court overturned (PDF) the previous decision, a move that will force Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Roche and Johnson & Johnson to defend themselves anew. A panel of three circuit court judges agreed unanimously to revive the lawsuit.
In a joint statement, the companies denied any wrongdoing.
“Further proceedings will show the companies are not responsible in any way,” they said to Reuters.
The amended complaint seeks damages under the federal Anti-Terrorism Act on behalf of 395 Americans who were killed or wounded in Iraq between 2005 and 2011.
The suit, which also includes GE Healthcare, accuses the companies of making corrupt payments to the terrorists who ran Iraq’s health ministry. The suit claims that the companies obtained the contracts through bribes which financed terrorist attacks on Americans.
The complaint says the Lebanese Hezbollah-sponsored Jaysh al-Mahdi terrorist organization took control of Iraq’s ministry of health in 2004 and used it as a vehicle for terrorist activity. The plaintiffs allege that the companies used local agents to deliver cash kickbacks to the terrorists. They also allege that defendants delivered off-the-books medical goods that Jaydsh al-Mahdi sold on the black market to fund operations.
“The complaint describes how Jaysh al-Mahdi controlled the ministry and used it as a terrorist headquarters," the judges wrote in their decision. "Accepting those allegations, defendants’ dealings with the ministry were equivalent to dealing with the terrorist organization directly. The ministry was therefore not an independent intermediary that broke the chain of causation, but a front for Jaysh al-Mahdi.”
Previously, lawyers for the defendants said the companies provided "life-saving breast cancer treatments, hemophilia injections, ultrasounds, and other medical goods" to the Iraqi government after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Reuters reports. A ruling against the companies "would have a severe chilling effect on the willingness of companies and non-governmental organizations to conduct essential activities, often at the government's request, in troubled regions," a lawyer for the companies said at September hearing, according to the news service.
The allegations are based on information from 12 confidential witnesses, private and public reports, contracts, emails and more, including documents published by WikiLeaks, according to the suit.
The suit also drew the attention of the Department of Justice, Pfizer, Roche and J&J confirmed in SEC filings in 2018.
Over the past decade-plus, a number of drugmakers have settled allegations of bribery and kickbacks overseas, including in Iraq, some of them related to the United Nations’ Oil for Food program. In 2011, J&J agreed 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. In 2014, China ordered GlaxoSmithKline to pay $490 million for its role in a high-profile bribery scandal.