Eli Wallach died Tuesday. For my money, he was about the coolest bad guy out there. Not tough like Lee Marvin, just cool. My favorite Wallach roles were as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven and as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. An early proponent of method acting, Wallach performed on the stage and in films for over 60 years. Although originally from Brooklyn, Wallach was also a fellow Texas Longhorn, having attended the University of Texas. He served in France as a Second Lieutenant in France during World War II.
I thought about Wallach’s über coolness when considering the most decided uncool position of the UK pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) recently. Last month the Chinese government issued a most very stern warning to GSK when it accused the former head of GSK’s China business of direct involvement in bribery and corruption. But more than this direct accusation, the move was a clear warning shot across the bow of not only western pharmaceutical companies doing business in China but also all western companies. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “Beijing Warns Sernly on Glaxo”, Laurie Birkett quoted Helen Chen, a director and partner at consultancy L.E.K., as saying “Focusing much of the blame on a foreigner sends a strong message to all. Companies will see that if authorities are willing to accuse even a foreigner, who is in senior management, the issue is being taken seriously, it’s a clear message that bribery is unacceptable in the market.” Burkitt went on to say, “Experts say China’s medical system is deeply underfunded, giving doctors, hospitals and administrators an incentive to overcharge and overprescribe. Glaxo, in the past, organized trips for doctors around China and to places such as Budapest and Greece as part of a broader effort involving perks and cash to get doctors to boost drug prescriptions, according to documents previously reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.”
Such reports of endemic corruption are not new. An article, entitled “GSK China probe flags up wider worries”, in the Wednesday edition of the Financial Times (FT) reporters Andrew Jack and Patti Waldmeir discussed not only the endemic nature of corruption in China but how, in many ways, the Chinese health care system is based on such corruption. The piece quoted George Baeder, an independent drug industry advisor, for the following, “Financial flows – both legal and illegal – tied to drug and device sales are funding perhaps 60-80 per cent of total hospital costs. Without this funding, the current system would collapse.” Further, “central and provincial Chinese governments cannot afford to pay doctors a living wage, and may patients cannot afford to pay the true cost of care.” And finally, “Up to now, Beijing has turned a blind eye as pharma companies find ways to subsidise doctor salaries and underwrite their medical education.” How about that for structural corruption?
Intertwined with this structural issue is the problem of the quantity and quality of the drug supply. Many Chinese doctors do not feel that there is an acceptable alternative to foreign pharmaceutical products. This drives up the cost of prescribed medicines, as this quantity is therefore limited. But even where indigenous Chinese generic drugs are available as alternatives, many patients do not trust these medicines. This restricts the quality of drugs available.
But with this recent round of accusations against GSK it appears that the Chinese government has opened a new front. In an article in The Telegraph, entitled “GSK bribery scan could cause ‘irreparable damage’, says China”, Denise Roland reported that “Beijing has apparently issued a warning to all foreign firms, cautioning that the corruption charges against GlaxoSmithKline executives could cause “irreparable damage” to the drug maker’s Chinese operations.” She quoted from the state news agency Xinhua for the following, “GSK’s practices eroded its corporate integrity and could cause irreparable damage to the company in China and elsewhere. The case is a warning to other multinationals in China that ethics matter.”
In addition to these charges against a senior GSK executive, which could lead liability up to the GSK boardroom, Jonathan Russell, also writing in The Telegraph, in an article entitled “GlaxoSmithKline is facing more than double jeopardy”, said that “GlaxoSmithKline’s problems are multiplying fast. In China authorities have identified 46 individuals connected to the company they claim were involved in “massive and systemic bribery”. In the UK the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) marked out its pitch this week, revealing it has opened an official investigation into allegations of bribery; and an internal GSK probe is looking at potential wrongdoing in Jordan and Lebanon.” More ominously, he also noted that “Given the slew of allegations so far it seems a fair assumption that other international law enforcement agencies, notably the US Department of Justice, will be taking a long, close look at the allegations.”
While Russell points to the general UK prohibition against prosecutions, which might invoke double jeopardy, he says “As ever with the law there are exceptions to the principle. However they are limited in scope and rare in number. It may also be the case that the principle of double jeopardy may not be invoked in this case if the alleged offences the SFO is investigating are separate to those under investigation in China. They could relate to matters that took place in Jordan or Lebanon.” Russell also pointed out that “international prosecutors carving up parts of prosecutions so they can all have their pound of flesh. A very painful prospect for GSK.” It will also be interesting to see if GSK is charged under the UK Bribery Act, under the prior law or both. If charges are brought under the Bribery Act, which became effective on July 1, 2011, do you think GSK would try and raise a compliance defense based on the Six Principals of Adequate Procedures? I guess having a compliance defense is pretty useless if your company engages in bribery and corruption.
While Russell talks about the aggressiveness of US prosecutors under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), he does not discuss what may be GSK’s greatest exposure in the US. GSK was under the equivalent of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) called a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) for its prior sins related to off-label marketing. 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 (CO) 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)”.
For the compliance practitioner, one clear message from the GSK matter is to monitor, audit and continuously review your Chinese operations. I will have more to say about the China corruption crackdown in an upcoming blog post but just like Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven told the gunmen hired to protect the Mexican village, you have been warned.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014