TRENTON, NJ (AP) – A paralegal recently fired by French drugmaker Sanofi has filed a whistleblower lawsuit, claiming she was discharged after protesting an alleged kickback scheme to increase US sales of its insulin medicines.
The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Newark by Diane Ponte, accuses Sanofi SA, recently ousted CEO Christopher Viehbacher and more than 10 other executives of paying consultants millions to induce pharmacists to fill prescriptions for generic insulin with Sanofi’s brand-name versions, rather than those of rival Novo Nordisk A/S.
In a statement, Sanofi denied firing Ponte for whistleblowing, calling her allegations without merit and saying she’s a “disgruntled former employee who is opportunistically attacking our company”.
Attempts to contact Viehbacher were unsuccessful.
Ponte was fired in October, two weeks before Sanofi’s board ousted Viehbacher, citing slumping sales and problems with his management style. The lawsuit claims his involvement in the alleged fraud also was a reason.
The lawsuit alleges that Ponte, whose job in Sanofi’s diabetes division involved approving vendor contacts as meeting the requirements of federal health care laws, was fired in mid-October after months of retaliation from superiors for raising concerns about the alleged bribery and kickback scheme.
“She was a model employee, by their standards,” receiving excellent evaluations and commendations from clients over 13 years with Sanofi, Ponte’s attorney, Rosemarie Arnold of Fort Lee, New Jersey, said in an interview Friday. “She loved her job. She was so loyal to this company, and having been fired took a toll on her emotional well-being.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and other costs.
According to the suit, Ponte was retaliated against after she balked when directed in March 2013 to approve nine contracts totalling about $34 million between Sanofi and two consulting firms, Deloitte LLP and Accenture PLC, neither of whom are named as defendants.
Arnold said the paralegal 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. Arnold said the consulting firms used the money to induce hospitals, pharmacies and doctors to give preference to Sanofi insulin brands such as its top-selling product, Lantus.