Senators Wyden, Murray launch Novartis probe: ‘What America has seen here raises the specter of corruption’

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has opened up an investigation of Novartis’ $1.2 million in payments to Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney.

In a letter dated Friday, Wyden outlined a series of big business issues Novartis $NVS had in front of the federal government since it arranged the contract and handed over about $100,000 a month in 12 payments ending in February. Now the senator wants a detailed outline of who at Novartis was responsible for setting up the relationship and a copy of all the interactions the company had with him — in letters, emails or any other form.

“What deliverables was the company seeking to gain?” he asks in the letter, first posted by STAT.

And he’s not alone. On the same day, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) added to the Democrats’ messages directed at Novartis.

“This arrangement raises serious concerns about the length Novartis was willing to go in order to curry favor with this Administration, and perhaps more troublingly, what it expected or was promised in return,” Murray’s letter says, according to a report from CNN.

Wyden writes:

Mr. Cohen’s firm is not a health care policy consultancy, nor is Mr. Cohen a registered lobbyist. He is the President’s personal attorney, and Essential Consultants reportedly claimed to be a real estate consulting company. Moreover, the amount of money that Novartis paid Mr. Cohen’s firm far exceeded what it paid any of the registered lobbying firms it engaged during the first 15 months of the Trump administration. Lobbying records maintained by the Secretary of the Senate show that Novartis paid 15 lobbying firms a total of $2.5 million during that period, and that no firm received more than $300,000. By comparison, Novartis rate of payment Mr.Cohen’s firm was equal to $300,000 every quarter for an entire year.

In an interview on CNN, Wyden basted the deal with Novartis.

“What America has seen here raises the specter of corruption in the White House,” the senator said Thursday, referring to the deal as a corporate shakedown by a government for sale. “I want to know what Novartis thought it was buying for the $1.2 million.”

A spokesman for Novartis responded to a query from Endpoints News, noting: “We anticipated this letter which we just received and plan to fully cooperate.”

Novartis has mounted an energetic defense of CEO Vas Narasimhan since the issue first came to light earlier in the week. Executives have noted in a range of interviews with Stat and NBC and CBS that it was Joe Jimenez, the CEO until the beginning of February, who was contacted by Cohen and directed company officials to line up the relationship and start making payments.

The insider told STAT:

With a new administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the administration. Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.

Jimenez has not responded to several attempts to reach him, and a company spokesperson tells me they no longer have contact information.

Narasimhan has apologized to employees for getting caught in the political uproar.

“We made a mistake entering into this engagement and as a consequence are being criticized by a world that expects more from us,” Narasimhan wrote in a message to staffers. “Yesterday was not a good day for Novartis.”

But Wyden wants more than apologies. And the background explanation — following a revelation from Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti tying payments from Novartis, AT&T, and a Russian oligarch directly to Cohen — still leaves plenty of questions for elected officials to probe in the months ahead.

Novartis has considerable explaining left to do. And that means Narasimhan’s honeymoon period has been cut brutally short.

Image: US senator Ron Wyden on November 8th, 2016 after winning re-election. Shutterstock

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