Ex-Sanofi Employee Claims Ousted CEO Of $34M Kickback Scheme
December 4, 2014
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
The October ouster of Paris-based Sanofi SA CEO Christian Viehbacher has taken a decidedly odd turn. A former paralegal for the company, Diane Ponte, has filed a whistleblower lawsuit in state court in Newark, N.J. claiming the drug company illegally paid $34 million in kickbacks to doctors, hospitals and pharmacies.
Ponte claims she uncovered the kickbacks in March 2013 while reviewing nine contracts while she was working at the New Jersey headquarters. The nine contracts totaled $34 million. Seven of the contracts were with Accenture, two were with Deloitte. The focus of the misconduct was to direct incentives from Sanofi to physicians, hospitals and pharmacies to illegally influence them to prescribe Sanofi’s diabetes drugs over other companies’ products.
On Oct. 29 the Sanofi board of directors fired Viehbacher, citing differences over strategy. Despite doubling the company’s share value during his tenure, Viehbacher was not popular with the board. Some argued this was because the Canadian-German was the first non-French Sanofi chief executive. It was also noted that he had moved to Boston for family reasons, spending only about a third of his time in France.
Other factors included Viehbacher’s plan to sell the company’s portfolio of mature drugs worth about $7.9 billion. This portfolio included about 200 drugs including blood thinner Plavix, antibiotic Pyostacine and Dapekine, an epilepsy medication. The value of the portfolio was expected to drop by about 40 percent over the next 10 years due to patent expirations, decreased drug prices and European healthcare budgets.
Part of Ponte’s lawsuit says that she resisted signing off on the agreements, which drew the attention of Viehbacher. She also claims that when she reported the fraud to her bosses, she was subjected to a “severe and pervasive pattern of workplace retaliation.” She was fired on October 29. In the complain Ponte says her supervisors referred to her as a “ditz,” “dingbat,” “lunatic” and “scatterbrain.”
“The acts surrounding her termination from the company were blatantly related to her whistle-blowing activity,” said Rosemarie Arnold, Ponte’s attorney, to Bloomberg Businessweek. “She was a model employee before that.”
The suit also points fingers at Dennis Urbaniak, then vice president of the Diabetes division, and Raymond Godleski, who at that time directed Sanofi’s Special Projects division. When Ponte brought up the issues regarding the contracts, she claims Godleski told her to approve them without reporting the fraud. She was also told that the company would begin an internal investigation.
Sanofi was also accused of violating the U.S. Anti-Kickback Statute in December 2012 for giving doctors free samples of Hyalgan, an arthritis knee injection. The company settled the claim and paid $109 million in fines.