World News

Greek Politicians May Have Taken Bribes from Drugmaker, Prosecutors Say

Posted February 9, 2018 4:30 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 4:36 p.m. EST

ATHENS, Greece — A report from Greek prosecutors has found that 10 high-profile politicians, including two former prime ministers and a top European Union official, may be linked to bribery accusations involving a Swiss drug manufacturer.

The inquiry, which was sent to Parliament on Tuesday by anti-corruption prosecutors in Athens, is centered on accusations that the pharmaceutical giant Novartis made payments to politicians in exchange for fixing the prices of its medicines at artificially high levels and increasing its access to the Greek market.

According to prosecutors, who were assisted by the FBI, the bribes are estimated to be in the millions of euros, and the losses to the Greek state could have been in the billions.

Prosecutors said that Greek officials accepted money from Novartis between 2006 and 2015, a time frame that includes a period in which Athens was under pressure from creditors to tighten spending and contain a financial crisis. Two former prime ministers, Antonis Samaras and Panagiotis Pikramenos, and the EU’s top official for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, were among those on their list.

The names of the 10 politicians were read out in Parliament on Tuesday when the report was submitted by Tasia Christodoulopoulou, the head of Parliament’s transparency committee and a lawmaker for the governing party, Syriza. All 10 have denied the allegations.

Under Greek law, politicians cannot be directly prosecuted by judicial authorities. Cases must first be referred to Parliament, and lawmakers must revoke immunity and pave the way for indictments.

A government spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, said Friday that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would call Monday for Parliament to create committee to investigate the claims. Should the committee find evidence of criminal activity, it could recommend that lawmakers lift the immunity of the politicians in question.

Deputy Justice Minister Dimitris Papangelopoulos, who is in charge of corruption issues, described the case as “the biggest scandal since the establishment of the Greek state,” referring to Greece’s emergence from the Ottoman occupation in the early 19th century.

The allegations were met with fury from members of the conservative New Democracy Party, of which Samaras and Avramopoulos are members. Samaras said the accusations amounted to the “most ruthless and ridiculous conspiracy ever” and said he would take legal action against Tsipras and Papangelopoulos.

Avramopoulos, who was Greece’s health minister from 2006 to 2009, said Friday that the bribery claims were a “conspiracy,” having earlier called the case the product of “sick minds.” He said he would ask the Supreme Court to allow the identities of three protected witnesses to be revealed, referring to “a wretched slander involving fake witnesses in masks.”

The New Democracy leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accused the government of “trying to slander an entire party,” prompting Tsipras’ office to counter that the opposition leader was “trying to intimidate witnesses, prosecutors, judges and ultimately the Greek justice system.”

Pavlos Sarakis, a lawyer representing the three witnesses, told Greek television Thursday that his clients were top Novartis executives who appealed to U.S. authorities and provided information to the FBI in 2016 and 2017.

Novartis has been the subject of several bribery and corruption inquiries — in China, South Korea, Turkey and the United States — in the past three years. It said in an emailed statement Thursday that it was cooperating “with requests from local and foreign authorities.” The statement added that neither Novartis nor any of its “current associates” had received an indictment in connection with the Greek case.

Konstantinos Frouzis, a former vice president of Novartis in Greece, pressed Wednesday for the prosecutors’ report to be made public, calling the case a “gross farce.” He surrendered his passport Thursday to prosecutors.

The claims and counterclaims have created a furious political storm as the country prepares for general elections scheduled for next year, with New Democracy leading Tsipras’ leftist Syriza in opinion polls.