Former Greek anti-corruption chief: Novartis scandal has harmed EU budget

Touloupaki was the top investigator of the Novartis case and now is being prosecuted. She spoke to EURACTIV.com’s senior editor Sarantis Michalopoulos. [Office of Eleni Touloupaki]

The scandal involving Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis in Greece has affected the health budgets of other EU countries, and the bloc’s finances, Greece’s former anti-corruption prosecutor Eleni Touloupaki told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

The Novartis investigation in Greece was launched in mid-December 2016 with evidence of bribery of thousands of state officials and doctors in order for Novartis to get preferential treatment in the market.

Touloupaki explained that the scandal affected the entire EU because Greece was the reference country for setting the drugs’ prices across the bloc.

“I will put it very simply: If the member states, due to unjustly increased prices, had increased pharmaceutical expenditure, which was respectively borne by their national budgets, these countries would automatically pay a reduced contribution to the EU budget and, therefore, the Union’s budget and its financial interests were harmed,” she said.

Touloupaki was the top investigator of the Novartis case and is now being prosecuted by the Greek authorities, a move she says is retaliation against what, according to her, was a “disruption to the political-economic system of the country”.

She spoke to EURACTIV.com’s senior editor Sarantis Michalopoulos.

Interview highlights:

  • Novartis scandal touched on ‘a political-economic system with strong structures’.
  • Government abolished Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and succeeded in ending ongoing investigation and removing the Novartis case overnight.
  • The office probed Novartis executives, government officials, persons involved in money laundering, and doctors for over-prescribing
  • With charges pending against judges, no possibility of a serious compensation from Novartis
  • No room for doubt as to the Greek government’s responsibility
  • In Greece, when the prosecutor, who has been appointed specifically for corruption, touches politicians, he is prosecuted and fired.

Read the full interview:

Can you tell us briefly how from investigating the Novartis scandal, you ended up being prosecuted?

When, as the head of the corruption prosecution in Greece, my colleagues and I dealt with the Novartis case, this international corruption scandal, we discovered very serious facts and touched on a politico-economic system with strong structures.

This system was immediately mobilised against us in order to neutralise the investigation and to punish me and my fellow prosecutors, as well as journalists who were investigating the case. The investigated politicians, from the first moment they became part of our investigation into Novartis, filed a series of lawsuits and disciplinary reports against us while at the same time publicly threatening that in the end, we would be held accountable for our investigation.

Although all lawsuits and disciplinary reports against us were investigated by the regular judiciary and were filed without further action, unfortunately, the course of events fully confirmed the threats against us. Through a committee of lawmakers set up in the Greek parliament in 2019, members of the current ruling party and with the powers of a “quasi” prosecutor, while we [the] corruption prosecutors were continuing the investigation against Novartis and the investigated politicians, we became the subject of an investigation by this committee, for our actions in the Novartis case.

These members of parliament, including the politicians under investigation, then voted in all the voting procedures against us, without us being invited in any way to submit our views to this process, which we watched as ordinary viewers through the media. This schizophrenic situation, in which the legislature/executive intervened coldly, disarming the judiciary, resulted in an unprecedented prosecution of us, being accused of abuse of power and the establishment of a criminal organisation. Of course, the parliamentary committee did not have jurisdiction over non-political persons. It goes without saying that this committee did not fulfil the guarantees of impartiality that every judicial officer must fulfil in the performance of his duties.

Of course, this committee had to fulfill institutional guarantees and follow the rules of pre-trial, but that did not happen. Suffice to say that in this parliamentary process, the committee called for the testimony of “credible” witnesses against us, persons who had previously been examined by us [the prosecutors] in the criminal proceedings, as the main perpetrators of the Novartis scandal.

It’s common knowledge that the fundamental principle of the natural judge applies in all legal systems without exception. And yet, the Greek government, by law, abolished the institution of the Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and, in this way, succeeded in ending our ongoing investigation and removing the Novartis case overnight. Recently, the Greek government also passed a tailor-made law, which allowed politicians to appear in the proceedings against us in order to support the accusations against us.

This provision had been announced by one of the investigated politicians in a book, in which he openly describes the consultations and agreements that had been made between the politicians about the procedures that would be followed against us and which actually followed….dealing a heavy blow to the prestige of Greek justice and an indelible imprint on the democratic foundations of my country.

Has the Greek justice ruled that this is a scandal, and if so, who is responsible? Are we talking about just doctors? Has anyone been prosecuted?

Prior to the abolition of the Corruption Prosecution Office, we had prosecuted Novartis executives, government officials (one former minister and state officials), persons involved in money laundering, and doctors for over-prescribing. The case was filed against seven politicians due to lack of information, while the investigations for two more politicians continued. Finally, about one year and a half after the abolition of the Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the new prosecutor’s office filed both pending cases.

The Greek government claims that the scandal concerned only over-prescriptions of doctors and that the politicians were targeted in our investigation exclusively for political purposes. This is not the case. Apart from the fact that before the law, all citizens are equal and, therefore, we as prosecutors had not only the right, but the obligation to investigate the complaints and the information we had about politicians, it is obvious that drug pricing is not done by doctors, but by government officials at a very high level.

Consequently, the official theory of the Greek government, with which it turned this huge international corruption scandal into a so-called “conspiracy”, contradicts common sense.

In your investigation, you found that Greece was a point of reference for setting prices for the rest of Europe. Given that prices in Greece were “cooked”, did it not have an impact on other European countries?

Indeed, Greece was a reference country in setting prices, not only in EU member states but also in third countries. Since therefore, through the unfair benefits of the company to the persons who set the prices in Greece, the company achieved increased prices of its products in my country, it automatically achieved “cooked” prices in those countries that used prices in Greece as reference base.

Have you informed the European authorities, the EU Commission or other European judicial authorities about this?

Due to the nature of the case, our investigation was complex, very time consuming and difficult. Nevertheless, it had acted as it should at all levels: Among other things, we had sent dozens of requests for legal assistance to many European countries in order to receive critical information about the countries in which the company’s specific products were marketed, when they were first released, prices etc. This was done to some extent, and also, on our orders, findings of Greek audit authorities were issued, which by scientific methods came to relevant conclusions.

However, we were removed prematurely and abruptly from our duties and did not have time to complete our work. I do not know whether the new public prosecutor’s office, which has been in charge of the case since 2020, has provided any relevant information, as the institution of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which has jurisdiction in the member states, is now fully operational. It has the ability to gather in a short time and with much greater procedural ease all the necessary data in order to safely diagnose the exact impact of this case on the financial interests of the European Union.

I will put it very simply: if the member states, due to unjustly increased prices, had increased pharmaceutical expenditure, which was respectively borne by their national budgets, these countries would automatically pay a reduced contribution to the EU budget and, therefore, the Union’s budget and its financial interests were harmed.

Why do you think the Greek government decided to sue the company and ask for compensation now but not earlier?

The minister of health announced that he would take action against the company claiming damages, an announcement in which he contradicts himself.

Because he was a member of the pre-investigation parliamentary committee that drafted the report against us, on the basis of which the criminal prosecution was initiated against us, but also a defence lawyer and an advisor of people investigated by us [the prosecutors].

The announcement was made under the clear pressure exerted in our country in view of the international promotion of what is happening to us.

This requirement has been documented since 2020 when the Legal Council of the State proposed a series of actions in order to safeguard the interests of the Greek state. However, no one mentions that the Legal Service came up with these proposals when we were asked, and we provided them with all the elements of our investigation, which they found overwhelming. I have serious doubts as to the sincerity of the intentions of the Greek state to claim serious compensation equal to the damage caused.

This requirement has already been self-undermined since the state itself, through its representative, the minister of health, has expressed the view that the data we collected as the Corruption Prosecutor is a product of a conspiracy. In other words, it should be based on the “fabricated”, according to the minister, data from us, who operated as members of a wider criminal organisation which acted against the Greek state.

Apparently, the American State and the American Justice that received from this company 350 million dollars for its illegal practices in Greece had a different opinion.

This is, if nothing else, an absurdity that the company will take advantage of. The Greek people must understand that those prosecuted are people who fought not for a vague and distant public interest, but for the overpricing of their medicines, their daily need for access to affordable medication. People, because of this overpricing, lost the ability to be healthy or their own lives. In other words, the citizen’s right to health was affected.

But not only the Greek citizen, but also the European citizen, since my country was a country of reference – determination of the price of medicines. The overpricing was not done by the doctors who were paid to prescribe only Novartis drugs, because the [Greek] state deliberately emphasises only this painless side of the scandal, but also by government officials, as the US Justice Department ruled.

Personally, I do not believe that with the charges against us pending, there is any possibility of a serious compensation from the company. What is certain is that Greece has suffered enormous damage from this case and therefore the Greek government should not rest until it ensures the full restoration of the damage of the Greek state.

Do you believe that the Greek government is responsible for your persecution?

In our case, there have been a number of blatant violations of the rule of law, specific legislative initiatives have been taken, public statements by senior government officials and the Greek prime minister himself have taken place, which, among other things, have described us as a “gang” and “illegal justice network”, or they warned us that we would “go to prison” and that they would “scratch” us.

The very sequence of events leaves no room for doubt as to the Greek government’s responsibility in this. Our persecution is clearly political, despite great efforts to make it “judicial”. A similar case, as far as I know, was that of the head of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, Ms Laura Kövesi. On the contrary, politicians in France, Israel, Italy, the United States and elsewhere, who came under the microscope of the prosecutor’s investigation, never thought of turning against the prosecutors. These politicians were aware that judicial investigation was a sign of mature democracy.

In my country, unfortunately, when the prosecutor, who has been appointed specifically for corruption, touches politicians, he is prosecuted, deported, and, of course, fired. The important thing, however, is, even at this stage, for the institutional vortex in my country to stop and for the institutions to function freely and unfettered, whether it is justice or the press. At stake is the preservation of the rule of law and democracy itself.

The case is not Greek; we have been part of a wider social and economic family for decades, and, therefore, any blow against Greece is a blow against the fundamental values of the European Union and its economic interests. That is what we are called to do, each as a custodian under his institutional role and together for the benefit of European citizens, to protect and shield.

 [Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe