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Astra To Pay $9.85M in Sex Suit

February 5, 1998

BOSTON (AP) _ A pharmaceutical company agreed Thursday to pay $9.85 million to settle claims that its president and other executives pressured women employees for sex and replaced older workers with young beauties.

At least 79 women and a man who said he was punished for speaking out will share the sum _ the biggest sexual harassment settlement ever obtained by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Astra AB, a Swedish company, admitted it allowed a hostile work environment _ including requests for sexual favors in exchange for favorable treatment _ for women at its U.S. headquarters in Westboro.

``As a company we are ashamed of the unacceptable behavior that took place,″ said Ivan Rowley, Astra USA’s new president. ``To each person who has been harmed and who has suffered because of that behavior, I offer our apologies.″

The EEOC charged that former Astra USA president Lars Bildman and other Astra officials sexually harassed female sales executives.

Bildman was accused of replacing mothers and older female employees with beautiful, young, single women who were pressured into having sex. Former employees said Bildman demanded that eight hours of work be followed by eight hours of drinking and partying. Some claimed they were fondled while dancing with Bildman and said he suggested they have sex.

Women who sued Astra said after-hours sex was common and total loyalty to the company was required.

Bildman was fired in 1996, accused by Astra of spending company cash on home repairs, family vacations and high-priced prostitutes.

Bildman, who is being sued by Astra for $15 million to recover costs related to the EEOC investigation, said in a statement Thursday: ``I categorically deny that there was any pattern of sexual harassment at Astra.″

In addition to firing Bildman, Astra restructured its personnel department and agreed to a sexual harassment policy.

Also, the company said it took action against about 30 employees and Astra customers for taking part in the harassment. Astra said it fired or otherwise disciplined the staffers and ended contracts with the offending customers _ doctors, hospitals, distributors or health maintenance organizations.

Women account for 40 percent of the company’s 1,500 employees at the U.S. affiliate, which posted about $400 million in annual sales last year.

Astra’s ulcer medication Prilosec, marketed through Merck, is the best-selling prescription drug in the nation. Its other products include the asthma drugs Pulmicort, Rhinocort and Bricanyl, and the heart medicines Plendil and Seloken.

The settlement is $8 million more than the next-highest amount obtained by the EEOC in a sexual harassment case, from Management Resources International last April.

The current and former Astra employees _ at least half have left the company _ will receive up to $300,000 each.

Lelia Bush, a former Astra sales representative who brought the initial complaint to the EEOC, said women were constantly solicited for sexual favors while she was working there.

``It was unreal. It was fraternitylike. It was collegelike. It was not a professional atmosphere at all,″ Bush said.

Bush said she believes the parent company was aware of the atmosphere at its Westboro affiliate. She said European executives attended sales meetings with U.S. executives three times a year and invited women to socialize with them after hours.

But Rowley said the parent company didn’t know.

Bildman pleaded guilty last week to filing false tax returns, admitting that he failed to report more than $1 million from 1993 to 1995. He will get 21 months in prison.

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