Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have been interviewing current and formerGlaxoSmithKline GSK.LN -3.16% PLC employees in connection with bribery allegations made against the drug maker in China, according to a person familiar with the matter, as fresh claims of corruption surfaced against Glaxo’s operations in Syria.
The interviews have taken place in Washington, D.C., in the past few months and are part of a Justice Department investigation into Glaxo’s activities in China, the person added.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also is investigating the company’s business in China, according to people familiar with the matter. Spokeswomen for the SEC and FBI separately declined to comment.
Chinese authorities have accused Glaxo’s former top executive in that country, U.K. national Mark Reilly, of “large-scale” bribery. Mr. Reilly couldn’t be reached for comment and hasn’t commented in the past.
Glaxo said it is cooperating with the Chinese authorities, and has informed the Justice Department and the SEC of the Chinese investigation. A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the FBI interviews and said Glaxo’s discussions with regulators were confidential.
The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office also is investigating Glaxo for possible criminal violations in its commercial practices, the company said in May.
Last week, Glaxo received an anonymous email claiming its employees in Syria bribed doctors and pharmacists over the past five years to promote products including painkiller Panadol and toothpaste Sensodyne.
The bribes took the form of cash payments, speaking fees, trips, free dinners and free samples, said the email, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The email cited names and dates.
Doctors promoting Glaxo’s cold and flu products were paid $2,500 in cash in December 2010, the email says, while $2,500 was paid to a national dental association in return for getting Glaxo’s Sensodyne logo on dentists’ prescription notepads.
Syrian health officials allegedly received bribes from Glaxo employees to fast-track registration of its Sensodyne dental products, including cash payments and a trip to a 2011 conference in Rome, the email maintains.
Glaxo employees also were involved in smuggling a narcotic product from Syria into Iran, the email alleges.
The product in question, pseudoephedrine, is a raw ingredient of Glaxo’s congestion medicine Actifed and can also be used in the production of methamphetamine. The Syria allegations was reported by Reuters on Thursday.
Glaxo’s consumer-health operations in Syria—where the bribery allegations are being made—were closed in 2012 as the country’s civil war worsened. Glaxo retains its prescription-medicine operations in Syria.
Glaxo said it would thoroughly investigate all claims made in the Syria email, and said it has asked the sender for more information. The company said it has zero tolerance for unethical behavior, adding, “We welcome people speaking up if they have concerns about alleged misconduct.”
The SEC has recently started giving whistleblowers a cut of any settlement reached as the result of allegations detailing securities-law violations—providing a financial incentive for anyone with concerns to step forward.
Under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which falls under the SEC whistleblower program, it is illegal for companies with significant U.S. operations to bribe foreign officials in exchange for business. In 2010 Glaxo disclosed it had been contacted by the Justice Department and the SEC about its overseas operations as part of a wider FCPA investigation into pharmaceutical-industry business practices abroad, including in China. The agencies also began investigating the more recent allegations in China last year, according to people familiar with the matter.
The tens of thousands of dollars in bribes allegedly paid in Syria are on a much smaller scale than the allegations in China, where officials last July alleged Glaxo had funneled bribes totaling $480 million through travel agencies.
Glaxo said it takes all bribery allegations in any country seriously. Last year, it announced an overhaul of its marketing practices, including stopping all payments to doctors to attend conferences or speak about its drugs. Earlier this week, Glaxo cut its full-year earnings outlook after second-quarter profits were hit by weak U.S. sales of its respiratory drugs, currency headwinds and falling sales in China.
Glaxo’s shares are down almost 12% for the year to date.