Greek Politicians May Have Taken Bribes from Drug Maker, Prosecutors Say

ATHENS — 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 anticorruption prosecutors in Athens, is centered on accusations from three people, believed to be employees of the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, that the company 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, the bribes are estimated to be in the millions of euros, and the losses to the Greek state could have been in the billions even as the country was on the brink of financial collapse.

The prosecutors’ report is based on the depositions of around 20 people, but the most high-profile accusations are related to the accounts of the three witnesses, who have not been publicly identified. All three spoke to the F.B.I., which assisted Greek officials in their investigation.

According to prosecutors, 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 European Union’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 the judicial authorities. Cases must first be referred to Parliament, and lawmakers must revoke immunity and pave the way for indictments.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with top officials from Syriza to discuss the issue on Wednesday, but he stopped short of calling for a creation of a parliamentary committee to look into the claims, as had been widely expected. Another meeting on Thursday also ended without a decision on a next move.

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 Mr. Samaras and Mr. Avramopoulos are members. Mr. Samaras said the accusations amounted to the “most ruthless and ridiculous conspiracy ever” and said he would take legal action against Mr. Tsipras and Mr. Papangelopoulos.

In a radio interview on Thursday, Mr. Avramopoulos, who was Greece’s health minister from 2006 to 2009, spoke of “an unprecedented plot that would not stand up in any European country” and said that the case was the product of “sick minds.”

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

The lawyer representing the three witnesses, Pavlos Sarakis, told Greek television on Thursday that his clients were top Novartis executives who appealed to the American authorities and provided information to the F.B.I. 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 on 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 on Wednesday for the prosecutors’ report to be made public, calling the case a “gross farce.” He surrendered his passport on 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 Mr. Tsipras’s leftist Syriza in opinion polls.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/world/europe/greece-novartis.html by NIKI KITSANTONIS