In Defense of Blackmail: Why Shouldn't Pfizer Dig Dirt on Crooked Pols?

Last Updated Jan 4, 2011 12:42 PM EST

Wikileaks' U.S. Embassy cables allege that Pfizer (PFE) attempted to find evidence that a Nigerian attorney general was corrupt in order to pressure him to settle a meningitis vaccine suit. The leaked cables detail some of the difficult choices Pfizer's management in Nigeria faced in attempting to test Trovan, its meningitis drug, and then accept responsibility for the fact that the company didn't obtain the proper consent needed for the experiment it conducted.

The media has described Pfizer's actions as "blackmail" and "dirty tricks." But if you read the cables closely, and if you look at the history of the Trovan case, it's not at all clear that Pfizer is the villain here.

The controversy stems from a 1996 meningitis epidemic in Kano, Nigeria, during which Pfizer tested its Trovan vaccine. Technically, the test was a success:

In the event, Pfizer saved 189 lives of the 200 children treated. Five died on Trovan and six on ceftriaxone, the control drug. That was a death rate of 6%, which was significantly better than the 20% in some places where the epidemic was raging. In their terms, the trial was a success.
The problem was that Pfizer had not obtained proper consent from the children being treated. Families of the children allege that a March 1996 approval letter was backdated by Nigerian officials at the government hospital after the experiments had taken place; that the hospital had no ethics committee; and that the
experiments were condemned by doctors, including one on Pfizer's staff, at the time.

Pfizer settled with Nigerian authorities for $75 million. The Wikileaks cables suggest that the deal came only after Pfizer's investigators had given negative information about Nigeria attorney general Michael Aondoakaa to the press. Here's what the April 2009 cables actually say:

... former Nigerian Head of State Yakubu Gowon and that he has played a positive mediation role with Kano State and the federal government. Petrosinelli said Gowon also spoke with Kano State Governor Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, who directed the Kano AG to reduce the settlement demand from $150 million to $75 million.
According to [Pfizer country manager Enrico] 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.
BNET previously noted those articles in a 2008 item I wrote about a Nigerian doctor suing the African media for suggesting that Aondoakaa had demanded a $10 million bribe to settle the case. You can read a copy of the suit here. The original report accusing the attorney general said:
Aondoakaa had entered into secret negotiations with Pfizer officials to settle the case out of court. Several sources familiar with the negotiations told Saharareporters that Mr. Aondoakaa was working out a deal favorable to Pfizer in return for a hefty fee "in the millions of dollars," one reliable source said.

The sources revealed that the attorney general threatened to scuttle any "out-of-court" settlement negotiations unless the company obliged him. While the exact figure of Aondoakaa's haul remains unknown, our sources revealed that Aondoakaa at one point raged at a settlement figure proposed by Pfizer for settlement, an amount said to be in the region of $10 million cash.

Aondoakaa was pushing for a $1 billion settlement amount so that he can pay himself $10 million through his first cousin, Dr. Paul Botwev Orhii.
Orhii, who brought the suit, lives in Houston and denies Aondoakaa is his cousin. His suit was dismissed. Next, another African media outlet, also reported that the Pfizer settlement occured in secret.

None of this looks great for Pfizer, but look at who the company is dealing with. The cables say:

Pfizer underscored that the Nigerian representatives wanted lump sum checks and that Pfizer is concerned with potential transparency issues.

Final discussions on the $30 million and $35 million are likely to be tricky because the Nigerian side wants to control who gets the money, not Pfizer. The U.S. Mission will continue to advocate for transparency in settling the case and also note to GON authorities that Pfizer must abide by the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and cannot simple hand over large sums of money to state and local officials.

As soon as the settlement negotiations were underway, Nigerian officials attempted to persuade Pfizer to write them a single lump sum check. Bear in mind that by May 2010:
Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. (It's currently 134th in an honesty ranking of 178 nations.)

Put yourself in Pfizer's shoes: Even though your meningitis trial saved lives, it was sloppily executed and so now the families are crying for money. You decide to accept responsibility. But the people on the other side of the table simply want to be given a check made out to themselves with no guarantee that the cash will actually get to the children affected.

Is it really that unreasonable to try and figure out whether the person you're negotiating with is a crook or not? SaharaReporters' original story alleging that Aondaokaa attemtped to take a $10 million cut of the settlement for himself is still live on its site. The lawsuit alleging it is false failed. The story doesn't say that Aondaokaa succeeded in getting his money. The Wikileaks cables don't say that any of the information Pfizer generated about about Aondaokaa was false.

If exposing corrupt officials who want to take bribes counts as "blackmail" or "dirty tricks," then there ought to be more of it, not less.

Of course, there's a major caveat here: We only have the U.S. Embassy's side of events. The full story will emerge -- with luck -- in New York federal court, where a judge recently allowed discovery inside Pfizer's HQ for documents and witnesses to the Trovan issue. We may yet get another version of this Rashomon-like tale.

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