Still reeling from China bribery probe, GSK faces corruption scandal in Syria

In the midst of a widening bribery investigation in China, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has faced similar allegations around the world, including three countries in the Middle East. Now there's a fourth: Syria. The British company said Thursday that it had received an email containing allegations from a whistleblower pertaining to bribes paid by GSK's consumer healthcare operation in Syria before it was shut down amidst the country's civil war in 2012.

The email--a 5,000-word document sent to GSK CEO Andrew Witty and Judy Lewent, chair of the company's audit committee--alleged that bribes were paid to healthcare workers and government officials in the form of cash, speaker's fees, product samples and trips, according to Reuters. The email went on to say that GSK used its own employees and a distributor in Syria named Maatouk Group to dole out the incentives.

"GSK has been engaging in multiple corrupt and illegal practices in Syria and its internal controls for its Syrian operation are virtually non-existent," the email said, according to Reuters.

Among the specific allegations were that GSK made payments of $1,500 to two doctors in return for promoting its acetaminophen product Panadol. There were also cash payments related to cold and flu products, and paid trips for medics to a Mediterranean resort, according to Reuters.

In a statement obtained by Reuters, GSK said it immediately responded to the email and notified its compliance and legal departments of the allegations. "We have zero tolerance for any kind of unethical behavior," the statement said. "We will thoroughly investigate all the claims made in this email."

The timing couldn't have been worse for GSK. In May, former GSK China chief Mark Reilly and two other top executives there were slapped with bribery charges that could bring penalties of up to a year in prison. Then, in mid-July, British private investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife Yu Yingzeng were indicted on charges that they illegally collected information on Chinese citizens while Humprey was working as a consultant for GSK. Their trial is set to begin in China on August 7.

Syria is just the latest Middle Eastern country to raise questions about GSK's business practices. Earlier this year, the company confirmed that it is facing investigations in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Among the alleged missteps, according to a whistleblower, was that the company gave business class plane tickets to doctors so they could travel to medical conferences, but then let them swap the fares for economy seats so they could bring their spouses and children.

GSK said in April it had stepped up compliance efforts in the Middle East and suspended all company interactions with government officials. And it started its own investigations of how it does business in several Middle Eastern countries, including Syria.

- here's the Reuters story