A paralegal recently fired by French drug manufacturer Sanofi has filed a whistleblower lawsuit, claiming she was discharged after protesting an alleged kickback scheme involving Sanofi’s diabetes products. Diane Dupont brought the case in a New Jersey state court last week, implicating the recently ousted CEO, Chris Viehbacher, in the alleged scheme.
The lawsuit accuses Sanofi, Viehbacher, and other executives of paying consultants to induce pharmacists to fill prescriptions for generic insulin with Sanofi's brand-name versions, rather than those of rivals, Novo Nordisk. CNBC first reported this litigation. Interestingly, Sanofi in October cited poor relations between Viehbacher, the previous CEO, and the board as the reason he was let go.
Ponte worked in the Sanofi contracts department in the company’s New Jersey office, and claims she became aware of the alleged diabetes drug scheme in March 2013 when she received electronic requests for her approval of nine Sanofi contracts worth a total of $34 million—seven contracts with the consulting firm Accenture, and two with Deloitte.
Her suit claims:
"[She] determined that the ultimate repercussions of the said contracts involved illegal incentives and/or kickbacks from Defendant Sanofi, Accenture and/or Deloitte to induce 'customers,' including physicians, hospitals and/or retail pharmacy programs such as Walgreens and Rite Aid to [among other things] influence the prescribing of drugs, and/or improperly 'switch' from selling other manufacturers' drugs (ex: Novo drugs) to selling Sanofi drugs, in violation of the aforesaid Federal healthcare laws.”
According to Ponte, after she refused to sign off on the contracts, the company conducted what the complaint alleges was a sham internal investigation. No one was disciplined, Ponte's attorney said, but two of the key defendants, Godleski and Urbaniak, "retired" from Sanofi. The suit states they each received "millions of dollars in severance packages and/or in their pensions," and both then landed lucrative positions as consultants to Sanofi (ABC News).
When Ponte did not immediately approve the contracts, she said in the lawsuit, a superior told her that Viehbacher was "extremely unhappy," and he ordered her to approve them. Reuters reports that in September 2013, Ponte was demoted to a position reporting to another paralegal, and in March she received her first-ever negative performance review, the lawsuit said. She was fired on Oct. 15.
A notable aspect of this complaint is the fact that the whistleblower was the company's paralegal. Paralegals often review documents and bring issues up the chain at the business. Ponte alleges that she told her manager she couldn't approve the contracts because they had already been signed before her review, which was improper, and they called for huge payments without any services being provided.
"The relationship between the termination of her employment and the whistle-blowing was blatant," said Ponte's lawyer, Rosemarie Arnold. "Before the whistle-blowing activity, she had been a model employee."
Sanofi said in a written statement that the lawsuit was without merit. They stated that Ponte was "a disgruntled former employee who is opportunistically attacking our company."
Additionally, the suit notes the alleged illegal activity took place while Sanofi was operating under a corporate integrity agreement that required it to report any illegal activity to the government. Sanofi settled with the government in December 2012 over alleged kickback activity related to its arthritis drug, Hyalgan. However, the CIA is not on OIG’s database.
"Paralegal" can now be added to the growing list of potential whistleblowers. Earlier this year, California-based medtech company CareFusion paid $40.1 million to resolve allegations initially brought by their former vice president of regulatory affairs.