FOIAengine Uncovers a Persistent Questioner. What Does He Know?
Albert Bourla earns $33 million a year as the CEO of Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. His improbable journey to the top began in 1993, when he joined Pfizer after earning his Ph.D. from a veterinary school in Greece. The drug giant’s animal health unit was a backwater. But Bourla – ever the happy warrior – made it work.
Right place. Right time. “I’ve never seen someone who became successful without liking what he or she was doing,” he says now. “It is unmistakable. You do a good job, they see you. You do it twice, more people see you. They will give you an opportunity to do it somewhere else; a better job. This is how careers are.”
Bourla worked the ropes as a Pfizer lifer, moving up and around during his long career and finally maneuvering himself to the top job in 2019. He couldn’t have predicted what would happen next: Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Bourla became Pfizer’s battlefield commander. Right Place. Right time. All over again.
Bourla scrambled Pfizer’s resources to bring quickly to market a raft of Covid-related products, including the first mRNA vaccine. The payoff was immense: Pfizer’s stock price surged as the company’s worldwide revenue more than doubled to $100 billion, turning Pfizer into the world’s biggest pharma company in 2022.
In the process, Bourla became one of the business world’s most recognizable celebrities. Last year, the company spent $801,000 on his bodyguards.
By all outward signs, Bourla seems to be loving the attention. “I treasure the fact that, because of Covid, we became known in every single corner of the Earth,” he told a group of Duke University business students two months ago. “Right now the recognition of Pfizer’s brand name is as high as very few brand names in the world. . . . The lesson [of the pandemic] was that we had a thriving life-science industry that was able in record time to come up with diagnostics, then respirators, then vaccines, and then oral treatments. That’s why we’re here.”
The question now is whether Bourla will be able to keep the success rolling. The stock market is betting that the answer may be No – year to date, Pfizer’s (NYSE:PFE) stock price is down 27 percent. Pfizer itself is sending caution signals that, with the public-health emergency over, its revenue will drop by a third, shrinking worldwide by more than $35 billion.
Lurking in the background is another problem that Bourla inherited, and which carries profound reputational risk and financial uncertainty for the company he leads. Since at least 2019, a possible criminal drama has been quietly playing out. The Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission have been investigating whether Pfizer has been paying bribes in China, Russia, and Mexico in order to win business overseas.
The law that Pfizer may have violated is called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and it carries heavy criminal and civil penalties. The idea behind the law is a simple one: Investors should be able to trust that a company’s revenue is legitimately earned, not built on bribes. Whistleblowers are encouraged to report violations. Under the law, tipsters can earn Powerball-jackpot-sized payouts, and are given anonymity in exchange for their cooperation.
Pfizer has disclosed the foreign bribery investigations in terse reports to investors filed with the SEC, and says it is cooperating and providing documents. But it has said nothing beyond that. The investigations have attracted little media attention beyond the pharma trade journals. Neither the SEC Office of Public Affairs nor its director, Scott Schneider, replied this week to our requests for comment.
According to FOIAengine, one very persistent individual is responsible for 65 FOIA requests to the SEC since the start of 2021. Ten requests were submitted during March and April. Many of the requests evince detailed knowledge about the SEC’s ongoing foreign bribery investigation of Pfizer, as well as a previous SEC investigation of alleged Pfizer bribes, the agency’s investigative methods, and attorneys assigned to the current investigation. The SEC does not always provide full details about a FOIA request, or the requester. But, based on available information, only one of the 65 FOIA requests, from early 2021, appears to have nothing to do with Pfizer. That lone outlier was a request pertaining to a $200 million fund that was set up by the SEC to repay defrauded investors, in a case involving General Electric. When the SEC approved that fund in May 2022, the agency noted that it had received only one public comment – from an anonymous whistleblower who unsuccessfully sought to claim a share.
To illustrate the stakes for Pfizer: Less than a week ago, the SEC awarded $279 million, the highest ever, to an anonymous whistleblower whose revelations led to $1.1 billion in FCPA fines and penalties against the Swedish phone maker Ericsson. Ericsson pleaded guilty to civil and criminal charges that it paid bribes to win business in Saudi Arabia, China, Djibouti, Vietnam, Kuwait, and Indonesia. Under the FCPA, whistleblowers can receive up to 30 percent of the fines collected, and there’s no upper limit. Hence, the record-breaking award that was just revealed.
A potentially complicating matter for Pfizer is its foreign bribery history from a decade ago. In 2012, Pfizer paid $60 million to settle foreign bribery charges filed by Justice and the SEC. Pfizer’s employees and agents paid bribes in Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Serbia, the SEC said then. Pfizer’s employees and agents were said to conceal the bribery by improperly recording the transactions in accounting records as legitimate expenses for promotional activities, marketing, training, travel and entertainment, clinical trials, freight, conferences, and advertising.
In the 2012 foreign bribery case, Pfizer got off relatively lightly, settling the charges without admitting guilt, and receiving credit for disclosing the misconduct before the feds moved in. Ten years later, and at least three years into a new foreign bribery investigation, a good-conduct medal for Pfizer – one of 97 companies under investigation for FCPA violations – seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, at least one interested outsider is tracking the investigations closely, aided by FOIA.
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John A. Jenkins, co-creator of FOIAengine, is a Washington journalist and publisher whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and elsewhere. He is a four-time recipient of the American Bar Association’s Gavel Award Certificate of Merit for his legal reporting and analysis. His most recent book is The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist. Jenkins founded Law Street Media in 2013. Prior to that, he was President of CQ Press, the textbook and reference publishing enterprise of Congressional Quarterly. FOIAengine is a product of PoliScio Analytics (PoliScio.com), a new venture specializing in U.S. political and governmental research, co-founded by Jenkins and Washington lawyer Randy Miller. Learn more about FOIAengine here. To review FOIA requests mentioned in this article, subscribe to FOIAengine.