WikiLeaks XVII: Nigerian Extortion Butts Up Against Pfizer Blackmail

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the seventeenth in the series.

A brief, but interesting, cable released by WikiLeaks on Thursday offers some insight into how international pharamaceutical company Pfizer conducts itself in legal business overseas. The embassy dispatch from the Nigerian capital Abuja describes a meeting between US diplomats, two Pfizer lawyers, Joe Petrosinelli and Atiba Adams, and the company’s country director Enrico Liggeri.

The meeting had been arranged to discuss the condition of a lawsuit that had been brought against the drug giant by the Nigerian government. At issue were the allegedly harmful results of medical tests conducted by the company on Nigerian children living in the state of Kano during a meningitis outbreak in 1996. The company had administered an antibiotic, Trovan, to children throughout the state during the epidemic, a drug authorities claim produced adverse effects in those to whom it had been given

According to the cable, the pharma reps met with American officials on April 2 of last year where the lawyer Petrosinelli reported that

Pfizer has agreed to the Kano State Attorney General’s (AG) settlement offer of $75 million, including a $10 million payment for legal fees, $30 million to the Kano State government, and $35 million for the participants and families.

The Pfizer officials presented their concerns to the American embassy that they were unwilling to issue damage payments in lump sums to Nigerian authorities for fear that the money would be lost through corrupt channels. The cable reports that

Pfizer is concerned with transparency issues and is pushing for a $35 million trust fund for the participants to be administered by a neutral third party and the remaining $30 million to be used for improving health care in Kano state. Pfizer underscored that the Nigerian representatives were pushing for lump sum checks and Pfizer will not agree to that. Pfizer is considering rebuilding Kano’s Infectious Disease Hospital where the trial was conducted and working with health care nongovernmental organizations. Adams suggested that the trust fund for participants be administered by a neutral third party because he expects “additional” participants to come forward after they hear about the settlement. The Ambassador suggested Pfizer work with NGOs already working in Kano State and for Pfizer to consider working with local NGO implementing partners that the USG has used because of their transparency record.

Given Nigeria’s less than sterling record on issues of transparency, the concern seems entirely warranted. But as the dispatch develops, it soon becomes apparent that Pfizer isn’t exactly acting out of good faith itself. In fact, the cable discusses the company’s efforts to blackmail Kona’s attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, in order to pressure him to drop the case.

Liggeri said Pfizer was not happy settling the case, but had come to the conclusion that the $75 million figure was reasonable because the suits had been ongoing for many years costing Pfizer more than $15 million a year in legal and investigative fees. According to Liggeri, Pfizer had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to Federal Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases. He said Pfizer’s investigators were passing this information to local media, XXXXXXXXXXXX. A series of damaging articles detailing Aondoakaa’s “alleged” corruption ties were published in February and March. Liggeri contended that Pfizer had much more damaging information on Aondoakaa and that Aondoakaa’s cronies were pressuring him to drop the suit for fear of further negative articles.

The Guardian contacted both Aondoakaa and Pfizer for comment. For its part, Pfizer stuck to its guns, issuing a very lawyerly comment:

The Trovan cases brought by both the federal government of Nigeria and Kano state were resolved in 2009 by mutual agreement. Pfizer negotiated the settlement with the federal government of Nigeria in good faith and its conduct in reaching that agreement was proper. Although Pfizer has not seen any documents from the US embassy in Nigeria regarding the federal government cases, the statements purportedly contained in such documents are completely false.

As previously disclosed in Pfizer’s 10-Q filing in November 2009, per the agreement with the federal government, Nigeria dismissed its civil and criminal actions against the company. Pfizer denied any wrongdoing or liability in connection with the 1996 study. The company agreed to pay the legal fees and expenses incurred by the federal government associated with the Trovan litigation. Pursuant to the settlement, payment was made to the federal government’s counsel of record in the case, and there was no payment made to the federal government of Nigeria itself. As is common practice, the agreement was covered by a standard confidentiality clause agreed to by both parties.

Aondoakaa, on the other hand, responded with shock. He noted that he couldn’t fathom the possibility that Pfizer would resort to such underhanded tactics in its legal wrangling with Nigeria, but pointed out that “For them to have done that is a very serious thing. I became a target of a multinational: you are supposed to have sympathy with me … If it is true, maybe I will take legal action.” Hmmmm. It will be interesting to see just what legal action Aondoakaa might take, seeing as he was removed from his post earlier this year by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.