GSK China“GSK plc sincerely apologies to the Chinese patients, doctors and hospitals, and the Chinese Government and the Chinese people.”

 

With those words, the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) PLC was convicted in a secret trial in a court in the Hunan province of China for bribery and corruption related to its Chinese business unit. The amount of the fine was approximately $491MM. This fine was the largest levied on a western company for bribery and corruption in China. Moreover, if it had been in the United States for a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), it would have come in as the third highest fine of all-time, behind those of Siemens and Halliburton. In a Financial Times (FT) article, entitled “GSK hit with record $490m China fine for bribing doctors”, reporters Andrew Ward and Patti Waldmeir noted that the fine is “equal to the Rmb 3bn in bribers that Chinese investigators said had been paid by GSK.”

Many of us had wondered when the GSK investigation in China would end and we all found about the trial when it was announced in the newspapers last week. It certainly showed that the quality of justice in China is quite different than in the west. While it is not entirely clear how long the trial lasted, it appeared that it was in the same range as the one-day trial given to Peter Humphrey and his wife last month, when they were both found guilty for violating China’s privacy laws. In an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “Glaxo Fined $500 Million By China”, Keith Bradsher and Chris Buckley reported, “Chinese authorities accused Glaxo of bribing hospitals and doctors, channeling illicit kickbacks through travel agencies and pharmaceutical industry associations — a scheme that brought the company higher drug prices and illegal revenue of more than $150 million. In a rare move, authorities also prosecuted the foreign-born executive who ran Glaxo’s Chinese unit.” Moreover, GSK China’s country manager, Mark Reilly and four other in-country executives were each convicted with potential sentences of up to four years in prison. The NYT noted, “the sentences were suspended, allowing the defendants to avoid incarceration if they stay out of trouble, according to Xinhua. The verdict indicated that Mr. Reilly could be promptly deported. The report said they had pleaded guilty and would not appeal.”

A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, entitled “Meet the Glaxo Executives Convicted in China”, detailed the five GSK executives’ crimes and sentences, the summary is as follows:

  • Mark Reilly: GSK’s former China chief. He was sentenced to prison for three years with a four-year suspension. He was also the victim of an illicit recording of he and his girlfriend with the sex tape delivered to GSK management in London.
  • Zhang Guowei: GSK China’s former HR Director, who was sentenced to three years in prison with a three-year suspension. Chinese state media said he admitted that the company has used many bribery schemes to ensure the sales of high price drugs to Chinese consumers.
  • Liang Hong: Former GSK China’s vice president and operations manager. He was sentenced to two years in prison with a three-year suspension. On Chinese state-controlled television he said he gave bribes to government officials, hospital administrators and doctors via travel agencies to pave the way for drug sales.
  • Zhao Hongyan: GSK China’s former legal-affairs director. Ms. Zhao was sentenced to two years in prison with a two-year suspension. On state-controlled television Ms. Zhao said she destroyed evidence relating to bribery to avoid punishment.
  • Huang Hong: Huang was a GSK China’s business-development manager. She was sentenced three years in prison with a four-year suspension. The WSJ article reported that she was accused of giving and taking bribes; and informed Chinese officials that GSK China used funds labeled for public relations uses to maintain relationships with “major clients,” who she said were hospital administrators.

The suspension of the sentences was highly significant. The FT article quoted from the trial court that the sentences had resulted directly because “they confessed the facts truthfully and were considered to have given themselves up.” The WSJ article reported that the court also took into account that GSK China country manager Mark Reilly had “voluntarily returned to China, assisted in the investigation and confessed…and had “truthfully recounted the crimes of his employer.”” Also they were in stark contrast to the three-year and two-year sentences handed down to Humphreys and his wife respectively last month. There was no word from GSK, however, on whether it would terminate some or all of the convicted executives.

GSK itself made several interesting statements about the bribery allegations and conclusions of the trial court. The FT article quoted Sir Andrew Witt, GSK Chief Executive for the following, “Reaching a conclusion in the investigation of our Chinese Business is important, but this has been a deeply disappointing matter for GSK. We have and will continue to learn from this. GSK has been in China for close to a hundred years, and we remain fully committed to the country and its people.” The company went further in statements. In addition to the quote above, GSK was quoted in the NYT article as saying, “that it “fully accepts the facts and evidence of the investigation, and the verdict of the Chinese judicial authorities.”” The FT article further said that GSK also said “it had “co-operated fully with the authorities and has taken steps to comprehensively rectify the issues identified at the operations of GSK China.””

These statements of contrition are quite a distance from the place where GSK started last summer when the bribery allegations broke when the company tried to use the ‘rogue employee(s)’ defense, when it said that the bribery and corruption involved only a “few rogue Chinese-born employees” that were “outside our systems of controls” Oops.

The NYT went on to say report that GSK also said, “that the court, the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court, had found the company guilty only of bribing nongovernmental personnel.” This is significant because the bribery of a government official (defined as such in China and not under the FCPA) is a much more serious crime in China. The British Embassy in China also weighed in, at least slightly, with the following statement, “We note the verdict in this case. We have continually called for a just conclusion in the case in accordance with Chinese law. It would be wrong to comment while the case remains open to appeal.”

So the GSK corruption scandal in China ended with no more explosive revelations. Or did it? I will explore where the company may stand and what it all means for the compliance practitioner going forward over the next few blog posts.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

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