May Flowers for GSK? The Corruption Investigation Deepens

by Thomas Fox

Chelsea Flower ShowApril showers bring May flowers, at least that is the old truism. One place it is decidedly correct is at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which began its run as one of the, if not the greatest, annual flower shows in the world in May 1862. The event draws some 157,000 people during its five-day run each May. The event has royal patronage and there is always a large contingent of royalty who visit the show.

Unfortunately one group of Englishmen and women who will not be stopping by to ‘smell the roses’ this year are those from the increasingly embattled UK company GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK). Yesterday the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced that it had “opened a criminal investigation into the commercial practices of GlaxoSmithKline plc and its subsidiaries.” To top off this bouquet of May flowers from the SFO, in the same Press Release the SFO said, “Whistleblowers are valuable sources of information to the SFO in its cases. We welcome approaches from anyone with inside information on all our cases including this one – we can be contacted through our secure and confidential reporting channel, which can be accessed via the SFO website.” It then proceeded to provide the SFO’s secure reporting website.

In an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “GlaxoSmithKline Under Investigation by Serious Fraud Office”, Chad Bray reported that the SFO “is investigating Glaxo’s business activities in “multiple jurisdictions,” according to a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly.” As most readers will recall, “Chinese authorities have been investigating the drugmaker’s business practices related to payments to doctors and other health care professionals since last year and questions have been raised in recent months about the company’s practices in Iraq and Poland.”

James Titcomb, reporting in The Telegraph, in an article entitled “SFO opens criminal investigation into GlaxoSmithKline”, went further when he noted that GSK has been in contact with the SFO “in recent months in the wake of claims that it funnelled hundreds of millions of pounds to doctors and officials in countries around the globe to boost sales of its drugs.” Moreover, “Chinese police have accused the company of dispensing 3bn yuan (£285m) in bribes under the leadership Mark Reilly, the former head of its Chinese business. Authorities in the country say the bribes resulted in billions of pounds in “illegal revenue” for the company.”

On the Chinese side of the investigation, the NYT article reported that during the month of May, “Chinese authorities accused Mark Reilly, the former head of Glaxo’s operations in China, of ordering employees to bribe doctors and other hospital staff to use the drug maker’s products, resulting in more than $150 million in illegal revenue. Two other Chinese-born Glaxo executives were also charged in the matter.”

When news of the Chinese investigation broke last summer, GSK claimed that “Certain senior executives of GSK China who know our systems well, appear to have acted outside of our processes and controls which breaches Chinese law,” Glaxo said in July, after meeting with the Chinese authorities. “We have zero tolerance for any behavior of this nature.” [Read: Rogue Employees] However it appears the Chinese authorities have not fallen for this age-old attempt at corporate misdirection. But Andrew Ward, reporting in a Financial Times (FT) article entitled “SFO opens criminal inquiry into GSK, said that the Chinese authorities had engaged in a “ten-month investigation” which had identified 46 current or former GSK employees as “suspects”. Rogue indeed.

Where might the US Department of Justice (DOJ) or Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) be on these issues? Clearly, these would seem to be areas of at least inquiry under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), but consider the following about GSK, in July of 2012 GSK pled guilty and paid $3 billion to resolve fraud allegations and failure to report safety data in what the DOJ called the “largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history” according to its press release. The DOJ press release went on to state “GSK agreed to plead guilty and to pay $3 billion to resolve its criminal and civil liability arising from the company’s unlawful promotion of certain prescription drugs, its failure to report certain safety data, and its civil liability for alleged false price reporting practices.” The press release noted that the resolution was the largest health care fraud settlement in US history and the largest payment ever by a drug company for legal violations.

You would think that any company that has paid $3 billion in fines and penalties for fraudulent actions would take all steps possible not to engage in bribery and corruption. Indeed as part of the settlement GSK agreed to a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA). This CIA not only applied to the specific pharmaceutical regulations that GSK violated but all of the GSK compliance obligations, including the FCPA.

In addition to requiring a full and complete compliance program, the CIA specified that the company would have a Compliance Committee, inclusive of the Compliance Officer and other members of senior management necessary to meet the requirements of this CIA, whose job was to oversee full implementation of the CIA and all compliance functions at the company. These additional functions required Deputy Compliance Officers for each commercial business unit, Integrity Champions within each business unit and management accountability and certifications from each business unit. Training of GSK employees was specified. Further, there was detail down to specifically state that all compliance obligations applied to “contractors, subcontractors, agents and other persons (including, but not limited to, third party vendors)”. So while GSK may have separate FCPA liability to be investigated by the DOJ; it may be more of an issue that the company could be in violation of its CIA.

GSK has of course averred that it is fully cooperating with all of the various investigations into its alleged bribery and corruption. Further, as reported in Ward’s FT article, “GSK said it was “committed to operating its business to the highest ethical standards”. The company had “previously denied any systemic problem with corruption and said the latest Chinese allegations were “deeply concerning to us and contrary to the values of GSK”.”

So I guess the GSK team probably missed the Chelsea Flower Show this year. ON the other hand, maybe they might be like former BP President Tony Hayward, who during the first few of weeks of the worst oil spill in the history of the world ever, went yachting…

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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