Justice Department probes claims that AstraZeneca bribed Iraqi terrorists to win contracts

More than 100 veterans last year filed a bombshell lawsuit against several drugmakers, alleging they financed terrorism by paying bribes to win contracts with the Iraqi Ministry of Health. Now, the Department of Justice is investigating similar claims, according to an AstraZeneca securities filing that says it's part of the probe.

In the SEC document, the British drugmaker said it received an inquiry from the DOJ in "connection with an anti-corruption investigation relating to activities in Iraq, including interactions with the Iraqi government and certain of the same matters" as those in the lawsuit. An AZ spokesperson on Tuesday told FiercePharma the company has a "robust and dynamic compliance program, and we refuse to tolerate bribery or any other form of corruption."

Last year, veterans and family members sued AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Roche and Johnson & Johnson alleging the companies paid bribes to terrorists that "openly controlled the Iraqi ministry in charge of importing medical goods." The plaintiffs contend the drug companies "obtained lucrative contracts from that ministry by making corrupt payments to the terrorists who ran it." 

Second-quarter filings for the other defendants either did not mention a DOJ probe or had not yet been filed as of Tuesday morning. Representatives from the companies didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, a Pfizer spokesperson said the company "categorically denies any wrongdoing." An AstraZeneca representative previously said the company has a "zero-tolerance policy for bribery and corruption" and was "disheartened that anyone would suggest we are connected to terrorism-related activity." Roche said it doesn't comment on ongoing lawsuits. J&J didn't respond to a request for comment.  

The suit claims illicit payments from the companies date back to the Saddam Hussein regime. According to the plaintiffs, Iraq's government-run healthcare system gave officials there "significant leverage" over the market and its players, and that the situation created a culture of "pervasive corruption." When Saddam's government collapsed and the Ministry of Health came under the control of Shiite terrorists, the bribes continued, the plaintiffs contend. 

Two Washington, D.C., law firms filed the complaint last October. The allegations stem from information from a dozen confidential witnesses, plus public and private documents, according to the lawyers.