Chiron Corp., facing investigations into its role in the flu vaccine shortage, has hired Washington defense lawyer Robert S. Bennett to coordinate its legal strategy.
Bennett, who defended former President Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, is said to be concentrating on a criminal probe of Chiron by the Justice Department and an inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Considered one of Washington's savviest political players, Bennett is also said to be taking on the broader role of directing the company's approach to upcoming congressional hearings into the vaccine shortage.
Chiron said last week that it had retained the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where Bennett is a partner. The company's legal team will include Sheila Birnbaum, who represented Dow Corning Corp. in its silicone breast-implant litigation, and Colleen P. Mahoney, who was deputy director of the SEC's enforcement division in the 1990s.
Larry Barcella, former federal prosecutor and now defense lawyer with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, said Bennett was precisely the kind of attorney you would want to hire "if you're in the soup."
Barcella noted that Bennett was representing HealthSouth Corp. in its accounting fraud case. He said that although executives have gotten in trouble, the lawyer so far had protected the corporation. "Although a variety of individuals have been charged, the company has not," Barcella said.
Bennett also represented Enron Corp.
Chiron, based in Emeryville, Calif., said two weeks ago that it would be unable to deliver any flu vaccine after British regulators shut down the company's Liverpool factory. The facility provided half of the U.S. vaccine supply.
The company said that the more than 40 million doses at the factory were safe. Regulators in Britain and the Food and Drug Administration disagreed. Last week, the FDA said it found evidence of contamination at the Liverpool plant.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has launched a criminal investigation that experts have said probably focuses on whether the company misled investors or government regulators about its ability to deliver flu vaccine. Just one week before the British regulators suspended Chiron's license to operate its factory Oct. 5, Chief Executive Howard Pien told a congressional committee that the company was on track to deliver 46 million to 48 million doses by mid-October.
The SEC has launched an informal investigation.
Meanwhile, two congressional committees have asked the FDA for all documents relating to the agency's inspections and monitoring of the Liverpool plant since June 2003, when bacterial contamination was reported in some batches of vaccine.
Chiron again discovered tainted vaccine Aug. 25, but said at that time that the bacterial contamination was confined to 4 million doses. That incident led to the plant's shutdown.