Novartis' contacts with Trump lawyer broader than company let on, US senators charge
- Four top Senate Democrats on Friday accused Novartis of misleading the public about its relationship with President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen, releasing a potentially damaging report claiming the Swiss pharma's interactions with Cohen were "longer and more detailed" than previously revealed.
- Dozens of emails disclosed by the lawmakers show that former Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez continued to engage with Cohen between April 2017 and September 2017, even after the company had apparently concluded in March the Trump insider was unable to supply the desired advice on how the new administration would approach healthcare policy.
- According to the report, Novartis "explicitly sought" to hire Cohen in order for him to provide access to "key policymakers," and Jimenez later exchanged emails with Cohen on policy ideas regarding drug pricing — ideas similar to several proposals later included in the administration's blueprint on lowering drug costs.
The account of Novartis' dealings with Cohen heightens the reputational challenge facing the drugmaker, which has made a concerted effort to paint the $1.2 million it paid Cohen's consulting firm Essential Consultants as a mistake.
Notably, the findings highlight the degree to which Jimenez personally engaged with Cohen, detailing at least four phone calls and several email conversations between the two.
It's evidence suggestive, the lawmakers claim, of Novartis' intention to buy access to the Trump administration and influence policy. The documents also show that Jimenez appeared willing to at least entertain a request from Cohen to look into a small pharmaceutical company backed by a private equity firm linked to sanctioned Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.
"The more we learn about the arrangement between Michael Cohen and Novartis, the more alarming it appears. The public was rightly concerned to learn President Trump’s close associates are selling access to the Administration and getting million dollar contracts from drug companies," said Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., who was involved in producing the report, in a July 13 statement.
Novartis' agreement with Cohen came to light in May, when a document released by Michael Avenatti, the attorney for adult film start Stormy Daniels, showed Novartis had made payments to Essential Consultants. The drugmaker later confirmed the deal, saying it had signed a one-year contract with the Cohen-controlled firm in an effort to learn about the Trump administration's plans.
The report was compiled by the staff of Senators Murray and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as well as those of Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Novartis, unsurprisingly, disputes the senators' findings.
"We disagree with the report's conclusion that we issued a misleading public statement regarding the extent of our engagement with Mr. Cohen," the pharma said in a Friday statement.
The report does show, however, that Jimenez continued to talk with Cohen — although Novartis characterized those conversations as outside the scope of the consulting agreement.
Most notably, in June 2017 — three months after Novartis said it had decided to no longer engage with Cohen — Jimenez emailed Cohen with a list of six ideas to lower drug costs. The proposed policies included promoting outcomes-based contracts, requiring insurers to provide point-of-sale rebates to consumers and providing "regulatory relief" to the U.S. drug approval process.
Cohen replied to that email several times afterwards, indicating an unidentified third party would provide suggestions and asking to meet again with Jimenez.
Even though Novartis acknowledged communications between Jimenez and Cohen continued after March, it sought to downplay the significance of those contacts. In response to inquiries from the senators about the emails on drug pricing, for example, Novartis said Jimenez' email was "a courtesy."
And, in a slight shift, Novartis also admitted it could have made a greater effort to break ties with Cohen.
"[I]n hindsight — and certainly knowing everything we know now — we should have tried to terminate the contract with Mr. Cohen regardless of our views at the time of its legal enforceability," Novartis said in its statement.
Previously, Novartis had argued that it continued to make payments to Cohen because, in its view, the contract could not be terminated at will. In their report, the four senators took issue with this assertion, claiming the drugmaker had the opportunity to end the agreement for lack of satisfactory performance.
Furthermore, Novartis agreed to broader terms on the scope of work to be provided by Cohen than it had originally proposed, making it more difficult for Novartis to break the contract. Still, Cohen's inability to deliver would have been grounds to terminate, according to the report.
"It remains unclear why Novartis did not do so and decided to pay Mr. Cohen the full $1.2 million," the senators state.
In one positive finding for Novartis, the senators said Novartis current CEO Vas Narasimhan never communicated with Cohen. Novartis has strongly defended Narasimhan's lack of involvement in the Cohen agreement.
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