Greece’s corruption prosecutor quits, citing pressure over Novartis bribery probe

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An investigation into whether Swiss pharma giant Novartis paid bribes to Greek doctors to sell meds has been complicated by the resignation of the chief corruption prosecutor in Greece.

Novartis is embroiled in a soap opera in Greece, complete with bribery allegations and a suicide threat. Now the plot is thickening. The country’s chief corruption prosecutor, Eleni Raikou, has resigned—and she’s blaming the Swiss pharma giant’s legal issues for her decision.

Raikou stepped down over the weekend, according to the Athens News Agency-Macedonian Press Agency (ANA-MPA), sending a letter to Greece’s Supreme Court claiming she was targeted by “unofficial power centres” over her investigation of Novartis, which started in early January. Her resignation followed a less-than-flattering article in a weekly newspaper, according to anonymous sources quoted by the wire service. In her resignation letter, she griped about a lack of “institutional protection,” the ANA-MPA reports.

A spokesman for Novartis said in an email to FiercePharma that the company is aware of the reports of Raikou’s resignation and “this is not something we can speculate or comment on. We are fully cooperating with requests from local and foreign authorities.”

Greek authorities raided Novartis’ offices in that country after one of the company’s local managers reportedly made a suicide threat on New Year’s Day at a hotel. The executive was one of the employees the authorities were interviewing, according to multiple media reports at the time. The probe began after media reports appeared alleging that Novartis had paid bribes to local “functionaries,” prompting the Greek ministry to tell Agence France Presse (AFP) that a “judicial investigation will be swift and thorough."

Two Novartis executives in Greece were also questioned last summer by the Securities and Exchange Commission, during which time they handed over documents showing more than 4,000 payments made to doctors to promote its products, according to media reports in Greece.

The Novartis spokesman said in the email that a Greek prosecutor visited its office there in December and January but that the company “has not received any form of indictment or subpoena.”

Raikou’s resignation letter said that the bribery probe turned up “substantial and crucial evidence” that doctors and some politicians in Greece had received €28 million ($30.4 million) worth of bribes from a Novartis bank account in Switzerland, according to the ANA-MPA report. She said some of the evidence was linked to the prosecution of a local businessman and former minister of defense Yiannos Papantoniou.

In Raikou’s letter, she said she “refused to be sacrificed on the altar of the interests of corrupt state officials,” who she charged “did not hesitate to plan my moral extermination so that they might be able to demolish our investigation,” according to the ANA-MPA.

Novartis’ troubles in Greece follow similar corruption probes in other countries. Last August, several of the company’s executives in South Korea were indicted on charges they improperly paid rebates to doctors there. Novartis also faced a whistleblower suit in Turkey alleging corruption, and in 2015 it paid $25 million to the SEC to settle bribery charges in China.

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