Drugs scandal roils Greek politics

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks during a parliamentary debate in Athens in February, prior to a vote on his demand that an investigation be launched into whether nearly a dozen senior politicians received bribes from — or helped to promote — Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis during their term in office | Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

ATHENS — The next Greek election could turn on three whistleblower testimonies accusing some of the country’s top politicians of taking bribes from a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

The three anonymous accounts are part of a Greek judicial investigation into whether Novartis paid off top government officials to spend public money on the company’s products.

The allegations of high-level corruption in the wake of the 2008 financial scandal — at a time when hospitals were running out of gauze and clean sheets — have set off a political storm and split the crisis-wracked country, as it heads toward a general election no later than next year.

To officials from the ruling left-wing Syriza party, they’re evidence of criminality among their hated predecessors from the right. To the probe’s targets, who all deny wrongdoing, the investigation is nothing more than an attempt to rig the coming election by discrediting the largest opposition parties. Novartis says it has launched its own investigation and won’t comment on the allegations.

“If prosecutors manage to charge a former prime minister or other senior officials it would be a huge blow to the opposition in Greece” — Maria Gavouneli, associate professor of international law

Prosecutors are investigating 10 former government officials, including two former prime ministers —Antonis Samaras and Panagiotis Pikrammenos — as well as the European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and the current central bank governor, Yannis Stournaras. Nearly all those being investigated are members of the conservative New Democracy party, which has been dominating in the polls.

“If prosecutors manage to charge a former prime minister or other senior officials it would be a huge blow to the opposition in Greece,” said Maria Gavouneli, associate professor of international law at the Kapodistrian University of Athens. “If nobody is prosecuted, however, the current government will be massively discredited.”

Under oath

The anonymous testimonies were taken by Greece’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Eleni Touloupaki, and sent to parliament in February under a clause in the constitution obliging the justice system to notify lawmakers should either a minister or deputy minister be named in relation to a corruption inquiry.

“I cannot speak on behalf of the accused, but there is definitely a political agenda in what is being told as part of these testimonies,” said Stefanos Komninos, who was secretary-general of the ministry of economy, shipping and competitiveness from 2009 to 2014.

European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos | Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Komninos is not one of the 10 senior politicians under investigation, but his name does appear in one of the anonymous testimonies — obtained by POLITICO — where he is accused of accepting a bribe from Novartis in the form of “bundles of cash wrapped in orange tapes.” In an interview, he denied the allegation and said he worked to lower drug prices while in office.

The testimonies, which were given under oath, contain several other similar tales of government officials receiving bribes in the form of bundles of cash.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ruling Syriza party rode to victory in 2015 by promising to crack down on corruption and put an end to austerity measures that had left Greek voters disillusioned with a political elite they considered corrupt and financially reckless. But its support has been slipping.

No charges have been filed in the Novartis investigation. Two officials in Touloupaki’s office told POLITICO that formal charges against public officials are expected in the coming months.

‘Bundles of cash’

One interview conducted under oath with a whistleblower who used the pseudonym “Aikaterini Kelessi” describes a scene in mid-2013 when then-Vice President of Novartis Greece Konstantinos Frouzis visited the prime ministerial mansion of Antonis Samaras, who ran the Greek government from 2012 to 2015.

“He [Frouzis] had with him a black, wheeled Samsonite suit case, which he had filled with bundles of cash with purple, yellow and green ties and gave to Antonis Samaras,” reads the testimony seen by POLITICO. Samaras has denied the allegations and accused the government of using fake witnesses to tarnish its rivals.

Another interview conducted by Greek prosecutors focuses on meetings that took place between Frouzis and Yannis Stournaras, the central bank governor who previously served as finance minister between 2012 and 2014. Stournaras allegedly received “an amount of at least €1 million as gifts” on one occasion, according to a transcript seen by POLITICO.

“These testimonies are in their entirety and completely false,” Stournaras told a session of the Greek parliament on February 21, referring to the whistleblower statements that have been reported by the Greek press.

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