Novartis’ internal probe, expert panel find no suspicious payments to Greek officials

Despite the lack of concrete evidence of suspicious payments, the alleged Greek bribery scandal involving Novartis might still turn into criminal charges, local media has reported. (Novartis)

Is the allegation that Novartis made dubious payments to top-ranking Greek officials a political witch hunt or a real case worthy of criminal charges? Preliminary findings from a Novartis internal probe seem to support the former conclusion, as do results from an expert investigation in Greece.

Novartis said its own investigation has so far found no evidence of any “inappropriate payments” made to Greek government officials, a company spokesperson said in a statement sent to FiercePharma. 

That echoes what a Greek expert panel said in a recent report. In their investigation, supervised by General Inspector of Public Administration Maria Papaspyrou, the experts also found no signs of suspicious payments sent to key Greek officials responsible for drug pricing, local newspaper Kathimerini reported early this month.

The bribery allegations, based on three whistleblower accounts, accused Novartis of paying 10 former government officials—including two former prime ministers—millions of euros in exchange for preferential pricing of its products between 2006 to 2015. The Swiss drugmaker paid bribes to doctors for more prescriptions of its drugs, the whistleblowers said. The officials have refuted the claims, dubbing them a witch hunt and an attempt by the opposition parties to influence the coming election.

“With national elections in Greece expected later this year, this case is likely to become even more politicized, as recent events have shown,” Novartis said in its statement.

It’s worth noting that neither the Novartis statement nor the expert investigation has touched upon alleged kickbacks to healthcare providers.

Now, the experts’ report has been forwarded to corruption prosecutors. Unnamed judicial sources cited by Kathimerini said it is likely that charges will soon be brought against at least some of the 10 politicians named in the scandal, even though no concrete evidence has turned up. The prosecutors insist that bribe-taking charges could be supported by the testimonies of protected witnesses, according to Kathimerini.

One of the witnesses, Nikos Maniadakis, a former Greek Health Ministry consultant who has advised several ministers, recently became the target of the scandal, as the other two witnesses said he accepted €120,000 from Novartis as payment for influencing Greece’s health policies. 

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Greece is only part of Novartis’ headache. In its annual report filed in late January, Novartis said it’s also responding to a subpoena and document requests from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice and it is cooperating with their investigation related to the Greek allegations. 

“[S]hould any wrongdoing be found, we will take fast and decisive action, and do everything possible to prevent its recurrence,” the company said.

Novartis has been trying to overhaul its ethics and compliance practices under CEO Vas Narasimhan after a series of scandals and investigations, most recently a $1.2 million consulting contract with President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Besides the Greek probe, an ongoing criminal trial in South Korea claims that Novartis used academic events sponsored by medical journals to offer kickbacks to doctors. Korea’s health, drug and trade government agencies have all fined Novartis since the exposé.