If anyone knows what it’s like to get slapped with a large criminal penalty by the Justice Department, it’s Pfizer, which got whacked last year with criminal and civil fines and a forfeiture to the government to the tune of $2.3 billion.
“To put it bluntly, it’s kind of like being hit in the face by a two-by-four,” said Doug Lankler, Pfizer’s chief compliance officer. “Even for a large company, it’s very hard to go through.”
In September, Pfizer pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge of illegally marketing the painkiller Bextra and agreed to pay $2.3 billion for its illegal promotion of the drug and other medicines. It was the largest-ever settlement resulting from illegal marketing by a drug company.
Under the settlement, Pfizer admitted to encouraging doctors to prescribe Bextra to treat acute pain and other ailments the drug was not intended for, a practice banned by the Food and Drug Administration.
Lankler, who led the company’s internal investigation and dealt with government prosecutors, told attendees of the Global Ethics Summit in New York on Tuesday that he was struck by how demoralizing the settlement was to Pfizer’s employees.
“You don’t understand and realize the phenomenal impact it’s going to have internally,” said Lankler.
Lankler was asked if the settlement has served as a moment of awakening for the company — inspiring improved compliance in the future. Lankler said that it was certainly an eye-opener, but added that even now he believes that Pfizer had a strong compliance program in place when the illegal marketing took place.
“Ninety-nine percent of everyone can be doing the right thing,” he said. “But if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got a problem and it’s not going to work.”
Lankler also had some advice for the conference attendees on dealing with government prosecutors. He said that throughout the government’s investigation, he gave countless presentations to Michael Sullivan’s office, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
During those interactions, he said, the hardest thing for him was seeing things from the government’s perspective.
“Putting yourself in the government’s shoes is one most difficult things to do, but it’s the most important thing,” Lankler said. Prior to joining Pfizer, Lankler served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York.
Lankler said it was easy to become defensive when the government was highlighting one instance of wrongdoing, when the majority of the Pfizer’s behavior was entirely proper. But, he said ultimately he recognized that one breach of trust is more than enough for a company whose customers must trust it enough to ingest their drugs.
“It’s a little mind boggling, they certainly don’t teach you a lot of this stuff when you go to law school,” Lankler said.
Main Justice is attending the Global Ethics Summit, hosted by Dow Jones and Ethisphere, in New York today and will be posting on a number of corruption and compliance issues throughout the day.