The EU’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, on Friday strenuously denied claims that he took bribes from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis.
He’s one of a number of senior Greek officials implicated in a transatlantic corruption investigation that dates back to the financial crisis.
According to documents seen by POLITICO from Greece’s special prosecutorial body fighting corruption, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, witnesses claim Novartis paid millions of euros in bribes in return for gaining unfettered access to the Greek health sector. Avramopoulos was Greek health minister for part of the period covered by the investigation.
Avramopoulos said Friday he would file a lawsuit at the Greek Supreme Court asking for the unnamed witnesses who have accused him of taking bribes to be identified.
“No hood and no shaming will cast shadow on my face. It is a matter of moral order and dignity,” he told a news conference at the European Commission’s office in Athens.
The commissioner, who was Greek health minister between 2006 and 2009, also accused witnesses in the case of trying to damage his reputation. “In addition, these pseudo-testimonial statements, targeting and accusing political figures in Greece, are based, as you know, on speculation, obsession and supposed rumors in the market,” he said. “They are not accompanied by any evidence. In other words, they are false.”
According to investigators in Greece, the case also involves Antonis Samaras and Panagiotis Pikramenos, two former prime ministers. The inquiry spilled into the public domain on Tuesday after the names of 10 politicians, including Avramopoulos, linked to the investigation were announced to lawmakers in the Hellenic parliament. All of the officials deny the allegations.
One of the claims in the documents is that PR company Communication in Practices — which worked in partnership with the Ministry of Health — received a one-off payment of €50,000, which was indirectly used to pay for favors from the ministry in 2008.
Witness testimony also alleges that Avramopoulos and other senior health officials received hefty bribes from Novartis in return for buying large amounts of the firm’s vaccinations against the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.
“Two decisions were adopted by the health minister at the time, D. Avramopoulos, to cover the need to buy vaccines … D. Avramopoulos received for this reason a big amount of money, for sure more than 200,000 [euros],” one of the court documents states.
Avramopoulos said Friday the vaccines’ procurement was carried out in line with Greek legal procedures and recommendations of the World Health Organization. He said the procurement case had already been investigated by Greek prosecutors in 2014, and the case was closed.
U.S. officials confirmed American authorities had launched an investigation into Novartis but stressed it was separate from the probe into Greek politicians. Two judicial officials in Athens briefed on the Greek case verified the authenticity of the court documents, which have been widely published online in Greece.
Novartis said it was cooperating with Greek and U.S. authorities.
“We are aware of reports relating to our business practices in Greece. We continue to cooperate with requests from local and foreign authorities,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Neither Novartis nor any of our current associates have received an indictment in connection to the case that is being considered by the Greek parliament.”
“We take any allegation of misconduct extremely seriously and thoroughly review all reports,” he added.
The U.S. Department of Justice did not respond to questions about the documents presented to the Greek parliament. However, a spokesperson for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Friday the government would recommend setting up a parliamentary committee to carry out an inquiry into the claims made against the high-ranking politicians.
Before the case can move forward, the Greek parliament would have to waive the immunity of the officials.
While the allegations continue to make noise in Greece, some in the country are criticizing the timing of the case file being given to the parliament. One senior judicial official in Athens, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said the case appeared to be based solely on witness testimonies.
In order to move the case forward, the official said, investigators would need to prove details such as which bank accounts were used to pay the alleged bribes and whether or not the money was later laundered out of the country.
“I understand that they still do not have that evidence. They have witness testimony and that is it for the moment,” the Greek official said.
The case into Novartis has been spearheaded by Heleni Touloupaki, who took over Greece’s special prosecutorial body fighting corruption almost a year ago. She has also given fresh momentum to an investigation into Germany’s Siemens over payments made in the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games and led a team of investigators tasked with identifying high-ranking Greeks with links to offshore financial holdings.
Last May, Touloupaki pressed charges against Yiannos Papantoniou, a former defense and finance minister who was found to have more than €3 million in undeclared income in the name of his wife. Greek judicial officials said Touloupaki is expected to bring forward her first charges in the Novartis case during the first quarter of this year.