Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Whistleblower Drug Rep Helped Justice Dept. To Probe AstraZeneca And Eli Lilly

A former AstraZeneca PLC (AZN, AZN.LN) sales representative who helped the government to investigate allegations of illegal marketing practices at the drug maker is no stranger to blowing the whistle.

James Wetta's 2004 whistleblower lawsuit against AstraZeneca triggered a U.S. probe of whether the U.K.-based company marketed the antipsychotic Seroquel for unapproved uses, the Justice Department said Tuesday. AstraZeneca and Justice officials confirmed Tuesday that the company has formally agreed to pay $520 million to settle the probe, though Astra denies the allegations.

Before he worked for AstraZeneca, Wetta was a sales rep for Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY), and he assisted a separate government probe of Lilly's marketing practices that was settled last year when Lilly paid more than $1.4 billion and pleaded guilty to a criminal charge, according to court documents.

Wetta's role in both settlements stand to make him a millionaire many times over. He got a cut of the Lilly settlement and stands to get a share of the AstraZeneca pact, in accordance with laws designed to encourage people to come forward with information about companies they believe are defrauding the government.

He stands to receive $45 million of the federal share of the AstraZeneca settlement; he will share an undisclosed portion of that with another whistleblower in the case. And his role in last year's Lilly settlement entitled him to receive an undisclosed portion of about $100 million reserved for several whistleblowers in that case. His exact share of both settlements couldn't immediately be determined.

Wetta couldn't be reached for comment. His attorney, Mark Lipowicz, said his client declined to be interviewed. He said Wetta had knowledge of much of the allegations made by the Justice Department in announcing the AstraZeneca settlement Tuesday, and that he cooperated over a period of years with the government.

The Justice Department alleged that, between 2001 and 2006, AstraZeneca promoted Seroquel for certain uses not approved by the FDA as safe and effective, including for dementia in the elderly. The government alleged the company paid doctors to speak at events to other doctors about unapproved uses of Seroquel, among other allegations.

AstraZeneca spokesman Tony Jewell confirmed Wetta was a sales rep for the company, but declined to say when. Jewell said the company denies the allegations.

According to Wetta's earlier lawsuit, he was a sales rep for Indianapolis-based Lilly in 2001 when a manager told Wetta that his sales performance wasn't meeting company expectations.

Wetta objected to certain sales tactics that he was informed would help him keep his job, including arranging for certain drugs to be switched on patients without their knowledge, according to the lawsuit. Wetta resigned from Lilly in 2002, according to the lawsuit.

Lilly's settlement last year resolved the various whistleblower lawsuits, but the company admitted only to illegal conduct surrounding its marketing of the antipsychotic Zyprexa.

A Lilly spokeswoman couldn't immediately be reached to comment on Wetta's allegations and role in the government probe.

-By Peter Loftus, Dow Jones Newswires; 215-656-8289; peter.loftus@dowjones.com

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