Syria broadens corruption accusations against GlaxoSmithKline

Last month, a whistleblower sent a letter to GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) alleging "multiple corrupt and illegal practices" in the company's Syrian consumer health operation before it was shut down in 2012. Now it appears the problems may have extended to GSK's prescription drug business in Syria, which is still in operation.

An anonymous email was sent last week to GSK CEO Andrew Witty and Judy Lewent, chair of the company's audit committee, accusing the company of paying bribes to Syrian doctors and officials, according to Reuters. The company allegedly awarded cash, product samples and trips worth thousands of dollars to boost sales of certain drugs, including cancer therapies and anticoagulants, the news service reports.

Even though the monetary amounts of the alleged bribes are small and the Syrian operation only brings in about $10 million in sales a year, GSK is taking the accusations seriously, launching an immediate investigation and suspending relationships with distributors there. "We have zero tolerance for any kind of unethical behavior," a GSK spokeswoman told Reuters. "We are committed to taking any disciplinary actions resulting from the findings."

The email laying out the bribery allegations is quite specific, naming a Syrian doctor who received more than $200 a month in free product samples, for example, when he ordered GSK drugs instead of similar medicines made by rival companies, according to Reuters. The email also accuses GSK of bribing Ministry of Health officials in Syria to obtain vaccines, which were then stored in an unapproved facility and resold illegally.

The Syria scandal may have been written off as a mere blip in GSK's international operations were it not for the fact that it follows a string of worrisome corruption scandals in other countries. GSK is facing charges in China that it orchestrated a $489 million bribery scheme--allegations that could result in prison time for the company's former China chief, Mark Reilly. And late last week, British private investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife, Yu Yingzeng, were sentenced to 2.5 years and 2 years in jail, respectively, for their alleged roles in the GSK scandal.

Earlier this year, GSK confirmed it is also facing bribery investigations in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The company has launched its own investigations in several other Middle Eastern countries. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into whether GSK might have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and Britain's Serious Fraud Office is also investigating.

- here's the Reuters story