As much as Novartis might want the issue to go away, the company’s questionable $1.2 million consulting contract with President Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen caught the spotlight again on Wednesday as Cohen testified to Congress.
Pressed by lawmakers in the House of Representatives, Cohen sketched out a relationship that contradicts Novartis’ original version in some important ways—namely, regarding how often the company interacted with Cohen and what, exactly, Novartis wanted him to do.
Cohen said Novartis hired him for his “knowledge of the enigma of Donald Trump,” according to a Huffington Post live feed, echoing Novartis’ statements that it wanted insight into the future administration.
Cohen estimated he had interacted with the drugmaker six times—Novartis’ initial account admits one meeting—and said the company initially wanted more than insight; it wanted influence.
Novartis “sent me their contract, which stated specifically that they wanted me to lobby,” Cohen said, as quoted by Reuters. “That they wanted me to provide access to government, including the president.”
“That paragraph was crossed out by me, initialed, and written in my own handwriting that says I will not lobby or do government relations work,” he added, the news service said.
During the hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows suggested Cohen may have violated lobbying laws with the deal. He didn’t say whether Novartis might have run afoul of the rules. A Novartis spokesman on Wednesday said the company “previously addressed all questions regarding our relationship with Essential Consultants and we consider this matter closed.”
Senate Democrats disputed Novartis’ original account of the deal in a 22-page report last summer, saying ex-CEO Joe Jimenez had worked directly with Cohen several times and exchanged multiple emails with him. Their report offers statistics that back up Cohen’s testimony Wednesday.
Cohen and Jimenez “had at least four phone calls, and, between April and September 2017, exchanged multiple emails on substantive issues, including the Trump administration’s drug pricing proposals, Novartis’s potential investment in a small drug company backed by Columbus Nova, and with regard to opioid lawsuits,” the report said.
Jimenez offered up some ideas on drug pricing that later showed up in the Trump administration’s “blueprint” for lowering the cost of drugs, the report said.
Novartis had given the committee some documents showing its communications with Cohen, the Finance Committee report said. The company refused, however, to provide other documents the senators had requested, including “any documents reflecting internal communications regarding Mr. Cohen and his role with the company.”
After the Senate report, Novartis said it met with Cohen only once, citing internal documents it had submitted for the investigation. “As the documents we produced show, Novartis had one and only meeting with Mr. Cohen on March 1, 2017, and then concluded he was not able to provide the substantive consulting advice and insight for which he was hired,” a company spokesman said in a statement provided to FiercePharma at the time. “We never asked Mr. Cohen to perform any services on our behalf after March 1, nor did he perform any.”
Novartis further said the company had “additional communication” with Cohen when he initiated contact several times after the initial meeting.
Novartis and Cohen entered their consulting agreement back in early 2017 and the deal came to light last May thanks to attorney Michael Avenatti, who then represented adult actress Stormi Daniels. Avenatti said Novartis paid Essential Consultants, a company Cohen set up and also used to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with the president.
After Avenatti went public, Novartis opened up and said it had paid Cohen $100,000 a month for consulting. The company said it determined after one meeting that Cohen couldn’t offer any help, but instead of canceling the deal immediately, it decided to make the remainder of the payments.
The company acknowledged it made a mistake in its July statement and said: “In 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.” The issue has served as an embarrassment for the company, and new CEO Vas Narasimhan has pledged to improve Novartis’ ethical standards and its standing in society.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a Wednesday statement from Novartis.