February 21, 2018 / 3:29 PM / 10 months ago

Greek parliament to probe politicians in alleged Novartis bribe case

ATHENS (Reuters) - The Greek parliament voted on Thursday to investigate politicians, including former prime ministers, over allegations of bribery by the Swiss drugmaker Novartis.

Former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras addresses lawmakers during a parliamentary session before a vote on setting up a special committee which will probe the role of ten politicians in a case which involves alleged bribery by Swiss drugmaker Novartis, in Athens, Greece, February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

The case has struck a nerve in Greece as it slowly emerges from a debt crisis that many blamed on a corrupt political elite and a spendthrift state that ballooned deficits. Athens has slashed healthcare spending to shore up its finances.

Court officials say staff at Novartis are alleged to have bribed Greek doctors and politicians. Novartis has said that, if an investigation finds its managers acted unethically, it will take “fast and decisive action”.

Ten socialist and conservative politicians who served between 2006 and 2015 deny the allegations as a fabrication and witch-hunt by the leftist-led government to discredit them before elections in 2019 - which the government, in turn, denies.

Greek prosecutors, who have investigated for more than a year, referred the case to parliament this month. Under Greek law, parliament is the only institution that can investigate ministers and lift their immunity.

After a 19-hour debate, a majority of lawmakers in the 300-seat house voted to set up a committee that will assume the role of investigating judge. They cast votes in 10 ballot boxes, one for each politician named as targets for investigation.

The coalition government, which was catapulted to power in 2015 promising to end austerity and crack down on corruption, formally requested the parliamentary inquiry last week.

“We won’t ignore the Greek people’s mandate,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said before the vote. “We won’t help cover up or bury one of the biggest scandals in modern Greek history.”

Tsipras’ Syriza party trails the conservative New Democracy opposition in polls. In 2015, his government signed up to the country’s third international bailout, which expires in August.

New Democracy’s leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accused the government of “systematically attacking political opposition” instead of reforming the health sector and cutting spending.

“You pretend to be clean and moral,” he said. “Instead of protecting the state’s interests, you used the case to hurt your political opponents.”

Among those named in documents filed to parliament were the former leader of New Democracy, ex-prime minister Antonis Samaras, former finance minister Evangelos Venizelos and current central bank governor Yannis Stournaras.

Stournaras, who served as finance minister from 2012 to 2014, told lawmakers that witness testimony in the case file was totally false and urged the house to investigate the allegations, which he said were “shameful slander”.

The witnesses’ names have not been disclosed. They are protected from prosecution, court officials said on Tuesday.

Last week, Samaras filed a lawsuit accusing witnesses of slander, prosecutors of breach of duty and Tsipras and a minister of morally assisting them. “I’m not here to apologize, I’m here to denounce,” he told parliament. [L8N1Q558C]

Venizelos, former leader of the Socialist PASOK party, has also filed suit against one of the witnesses, requesting that his identity be revealed for credibility checks. He called the case “the biggest and sloppiest plot” in decades.

Greek prosecutors are also investigating the bribery allegations facing Novartis, which has been hit by fines or forced into costly settlements elsewhere.

In South Korea last year, it paid $49 million after accusations it offered doctors kickbacks to recommend its drugs, just after it handed over $25 million to settle the U.S.

Securities and Exchange Commission’s claims it paid bribes to health professionals in China.

In 2015, Novartis paid $390 million to settle a U.S. lawsuit following charges that it paid pharmacies illegal kickbacks to pump up prescription refills.

In another ongoing case filed in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice accuses the Basel-based company of holding sham speaking events to bribe doctors, while it has said it is cooperating with a DOJ probe in Russia of business practices at its Alcon eyecare unit. [reut.rs/2HCiTEd]

Slideshow (10 Images)

Former CEO Joe Jimenez, who stepped down on Feb. 1, had called many of these cases a "legacy" of a results-oriented culture abused by some "bad actors". His successor, Vas Narasimhan, said last month the company is making strides to bolster its reputation. [reut.rs/2HBFEs0]

Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Phoebe Fronista and by John Miller in Zurich; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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