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Senate panel to scrutinize proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger

In this May 23, 2016, file photo the Bayer AG corporate logo is displayed on a building of the German drug and chemicals company in Berlin, Germany.  (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Updated at 11:55 a.m. Monday

FRANKFURT, Germany — Bayer said on Monday its Monsanto unit, which is being investigated by French prosecutors for compiling files of influential people such as journalists in France, likely did the same across Europe, suggesting a potentially wider problem. 

The program, which was run out of Brussels, was aimed explicitly at Europe, excluding the United States and other regions, a spokesman said.

French prosecutors said on Friday they had opened an inquiry after newspaper Le Monde filed a complaint alleging that Monsanto — acquired by Bayer for $63 billion last year — had kept a file of 200 names, including journalists and lawmakers in hopes of influencing positions on pesticides.

On Sunday, Bayer acknowledged the existence of the files, saying it does not believe any laws were broken but that it will ask an external law firm to investigate.

“It’s safe to say that other countries in Europe were affected by lists ... I assume that all EU member states could potentially be affected,” Matthias Berninger, Bayer’s head of public affairs and sustainability, told journalists on Monday.

While he did not say there had any illegal activity and added it was up to the external law firm to evaluate the conduct, Berninger said there were signs Monsanto had not played fairly in the use of private data.

“There have been a number of cases where — as they would say in football — not the ball was played but the man, or woman, was tackled,” Berninger, who joined Bayer in January, said on a conference call.

“When you collect non-publicly available data about individuals a Rubicon is clearly crossed,” regardless of whether data privacy laws were actually violated, he added.

Asked whether similar lists were compiled in the U.S., Christian Maertin, head of corporate communications for Bayer, told the Post-Dispatch in an email: “The stakeholder mapping we’re talking about here is a program which was commissioned by Monsanto in 2016 explicitly for Europe. It was steered and coordinated from Brussels. From today’s perspective we don’t have any indication that other regions of the world also might be affected by this program.”

French public-sector research institutes Inra and CNRS on Monday said they would file criminal complaints over mishandling of personal data, after finding that some of their researchers and executives featured on the Monsanto stakeholder lists.

Bayer said in its initial statement on Sunday that “Currently, we have no indication that the preparation of the lists under discussion violated any legal provisions.”

It added, “Bayer will ask an external law firm to investigate the project Monsanto commissioned and evaluate the allegations. The law firm will also inform all of the persons on the lists of the information collected about them."

Work with the PR agencies that were commissioned by Monsanto for the project at the time has been suspended, it said.

On Sunday, FleishmanHillard, whose Brussels office reportedly compiled the list for Monsanto, issued a statement saying, “Our work is in keeping with the professional standards and established practices of our industry.”

Bayer already faces potentially heavy costs from U.S. class-action lawsuits in which plaintiffs argue that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller causes cancer.

Bayer shares have shed more than 40 percent since a first adverse U.S. judgment on Roundup last August, leaving the company with a market capitalization smaller than the price it paid for Monsanto.

Shareholders delivered a rare rebuke to CEO Werner Baumann’s management team at Bayer’s annual general meeting last month, with a majority voting against ratifying the executive board’s business conduct in 2018.

Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz in Paris. The Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


Our earlier story, which was posted Sunday and updated Monday at 10:19 a.m.

FRANKFURT, Germany — Bayer said on Sunday it was hiring an external law firm to investigate French media complaints that Monsanto, the Creve Coeur-based seed maker it took over last year, had compiled a file of influential personalities.

The German life sciences and pharmaceuticals group said that, following an internal review, it understood that this initiative had raised concerns and criticism.

“This is not the way Bayer seeks dialog with society and stakeholders. We apologize for this behavior,” Bayer said in a statement. It added, however, that there was no indication that compiling the lists was illegal.

French prosecutors opened an inquiry on Friday after newspaper Le Monde filed a complaint alleging that the Brussels office of Monsanto’s public relations firm, St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard Inc., had compiled a file of 200 names, including journalists and lawmakers, in the hope of influencing their positions on pesticides.

The French investigation is the latest fallout from Bayer’s $63 billion takeover of Monsanto. It already faces potentially heavy costs from class-action lawsuits in the United States in which plaintiffs argue that its Roundup weedkiller causes cancer.

Bayer shares have shed more than 40 percent since a first adverse U.S. judgment on Roundup last August, leaving the company with a market capitalization smaller than the price it paid for Monsanto.

Shareholders delivered a rare rebuke to CEO Werner Baumann’s management team at Bayer’s annual general meeting last month, with a majority voting against ratifying the executive board’s business conduct in 2018.

Commenting on the French allegations, Bayer said its law firm would inform all of the individuals on the Monsanto list about the information collected about them. Bayer would also “fully support” the French prosecutor’s investigation.

Matthias Berninger, Bayer’s new head of public and government affairs, would evaluate the matter internally and assess the behavior of people involved, both inside and outside the company.

“Our highest priority is to create transparency,” Bayer said, adding that the Monsanto manager responsible for the issue had left the company soon after the takeover.

“We do not tolerate unethical behavior in our company. Of course, this also applies to data protection regulations in all jurisdictions in which we operate.”

On Sunday, FleishmanHillard said in a statement that it “is committed to ethical conduct in all we do, for ourselves and for our clients. We believe in being open, transparent, responsible and legally compliant in our activities, including the use and handling of information. Our work is in keeping with the professional standards and established practices of our industry.

“Bayer Crop Science and the farmers they serve are working to address some of the biggest challenges the world faces today. We are proud of the work we have done to support the Crop Science team as they have sought to inform people about Bayer products.”

Asked whether the firm has performed similar work for Monsanto or Bayer in the U.S., including compiling a list of U.S. personalities that identifies their views on glyphosate, a FleishmanHilllard spokeswoman said via email: “We don’t have anything to share beyond our statement at the moment.”

The Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.