Ex-Sanofi staffer adds new allegations to last year's kickback suit

A whistleblower who claimed last year that Sanofi funneled $34 million to prescribers to boost diabetes sales now accuses the French drugmaker of destroying documents to avoid handing them over in court cases.

Former employee Diana Ponte leveled the accusation in an affidavit newly filed in New Jersey Superior Court. As a staffer in the company's U.S. litigation department, Ponte stated, "I became personally aware of many instances in which documents were deliberately destroyed by Sanofi attorneys to avoid turning over said documents in discovery."

As CNBC reports, Sanofi ($SNY) declined to comment, citing pending litigation. But one of the company's attorneys, John Bennett, argued in legal motions that Ponte's allegation was "false, scandalous and unsupported by any evidence."

What's more, Bennett said, Ponte never reported any document destruction of that nature while working at Sanofi. Under the company's code of conduct, she would have been obligated to raise the issue through the company's internal complaints system, he said.

That wasn't enough, however, for Judge Michelle Hollar-Gregory to strike that paragraph from the affidavit, which included a number of other minor allegations.

Ponte originally sued for wrongful dismissal last December, alleging that she had been pressured to approve contracts with two consulting firms, Accenture and Deloitte, that were together worth $34 million. The contracts had already been signed, she claimed, and when she investigated, she discovered that they included illegal incentives to persuade "physicians, hospitals and/or retail pharmacy programs" to boost Sanofi drug scripts and to switch patients to Sanofi drugs from competing brands.

Sanofi has denied the allegations. "Diane Ponte is a disgruntled former employee who is opportunistically attacking our company," the company said in an emailed statement when the suit was filed. "Ponte filed for violations of New Jersey state employment law, specifically the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ('CEPA'). The employment law allegations are without merit, and Sanofi will vigorously defend the suit. We take this matter very seriously and will protect our company and our reputation."

The French drugmaker paid $109 million in 2012 to settle U.S. Justice Department allegations that it had provided free syringes of its arthritis injection Hyalgan to doctors to get them to prescribe the medication. The suit said the doctors then charged payers the regular rate for the doses they received at no cost. At the time, Sanofi said it had discontinued the program three years before, in 2009. The company also said it was setting up a corporate integrity program to prevent that kind of thing from happening again.

Allegations of creative kickback schemes are not new in pharma. Last July, a whistleblower claimed she was fired from Novartis ($NVS) for suggesting that a $400,000 research grant to McKesson ($MCK) had been used to boost sales of its cancer drug Afinitor. And last September, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) agreed to pay almost $500 million in China to settle an ongoing bribery investigation, which had zeroed in on payments to doctors funneled through travel agencies.

Several drugmakers have paid civil fines to settle kickback investigations involving specialty pharmacies, including nursing home pharmacies. Last month, Novartis inked a $390 million settlement with the Justice Department and a number of U.S. states in a case centering on the transplant drug Myfortic and its competition with Roche's ($RHHBY) rival drug CellCept.

- see the CNBC story

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