ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s government said Monday it has been handed evidence that senior politicians from the previous administration were involved in a bribery case in which Swiss drugmaker Novartis is accused of making illegal payments to fix prices and increase market access.
Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis said documents from an investigation would be forwarded to parliament Tuesday. The minister’s deputy described the allegations as “the biggest scandal since the creation of the modern Greek state.”
Kontonis said the scale of illegal practices has “caused annual state expenditure on medicine to explode.”
He did not identify the 10 politicians allegedly implicated. But several officials named by private and state-run news media in Greece issued statements late Monday denying any involvement in the Novartis case. Among them were former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Yannis Stournaras, the former finance minister and current Bank of Greece governor.
“When we are talking about scandals that involve medicine, the moral implications are enormous,” Kontonis said after meeting with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. “At a time of financial crisis and recession, when it’s difficult for our poorer fellow citizens to find the drugs they need for their health, there were certain drugmakers who in an illegal and provocative way, worked to provide drugs at inflated prices and used state officials in the National Health Service to make sure certain drugs available where they should not have been.”
The main opposition New Democracy (ND) party accused the government of meddling in the investigation process over the Novartis bribery case, on Monday. The Swiss pharmaceuticals giant is currently being investigated by Greek authorities over allegations of bribery towards public officials in the period 2006-2015.
The party termed as “unprecedented” the fact that government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos paid a visit to the prosecutor of the Supreme Court, revealing – after his visit was publicised – that he had asked for a privileged briefing. “All these that obviously show an unacceptable attempt by the government to meddle in the investigation process, appear entirely ‘by chance’ to happen one day following a protest by hundreds of thousands of Greeks over the unacceptable handling of the (FYROM name issue) by the government,” the party said in its announcement.
The public is witnessing an unprecedented event in a democratic country, of the justice minister and his alternate briefing the prime minister on an ongoing judicial investigation, which the constitution prohibits; not only that, ND said, but they also tried to influence the case by describing is as the greatest scandal since the founding of the Greek state.
Late Monday, former conservative Prime Minister Samaras, who served from June 2012 to January 2015, said in a statement that he had been targeted in a politically motivated attack. “I have been informed of the (prime minister’s) latest effort to slander me,” he said. “But slander is the weapon of cowards … Those behind this attack will answer for their actions in court.”
Central bank Governor Yannis Stournaras, who served as finance minister from July 2012 to June 2014, said he never signed any decisions remotely related to Swiss drugmaker Novartis, which is currently being investigated by Greek authorities over allegations of bribery towards public officials in the period 2006-2015.
“The political targeting and bullying suffered by me and my family for three years now has its limits. During my term as finance minister I never signed any decision directly or indirectly related to Novartis. Incidentally, based on the law, the minister of finance has no relevant competence,” Stournaras said in a statement.
Former deputy prime minister and minister Evangelos Venizelos lashed out at the government on Monday following the inclusion of his name in the Novartis bribery case file, responding to what he termed “the government’s barbaric assault on institutions in a rule of law.”
“As the public interest was and remains my guiding principle, I will not remain silent on the government’s barbaric assault on institutions in a rule of law which it carried out with the unfortunate assistance of judicial officials, in order to set up a cheap political diversion,” Venizelos said.
The investigation covered alleged bribery between 2006 and 2015, and according to Greek officials included several trips by Greek investigators to the United States to seek assistance from the FBI.
Although politicians are shielded from prosecution by parliamentary immunity and strict statutes of limitation, they are liable to prosecution for money-laundering offences — a tactic frequently used in the past by public prosecutors.
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, Novartis said: “We are aware of media reports relating to our business practices in Greece. We continue to cooperate with requests from local and foreign authorities. Novartis has not received any form of indictment or subpoena.”
DEREK GATOPOULOS, Associated Press