LEVERKUSEN — Bayer has said that it is hiring a law firm to investigate French media complaints that Monsanto, which it took over last year, had developed a list of personalities that the company would seek to influence.

In addition, the German life sciences and pharma giant said that it has suspended its relationships with "involved external service providers". Agencies implicated in the affair, which dates back to 2016, include longtime Monsanto partner FleishmanHillard and MSL's French arm Publicis Consultants.

French prosecutors began an inquiry on Friday, after Le Monde filed a complaint alleging that Monsanto agency FleishmanHillard had compiled the list from its Brussels office. Numbering around 200 names, the list is understood to include journalists, researchers and lawmakers; French law prohibits building personal databases that include people's political opinions without their consent. 

In a statement, Bayer acknowledged that the approach had raised concerns and criticism, but noted that there was no indication that compiling the lists was illegal.

"This is not the way Bayer seeks dialog with society and stakeholders. We apologize for this behavior," said Bayer. 

Bayer added that its law firm would contact all of the people on the list regarding the information collected about them. The company also pledged to support the French prosecutor's investigation, with new SVP of public and government affairs Matthias Berninger in charge of evaluating the matter and assessing the behaviour of people involved, both inside and outside the company.

Bayer added that the Monsanto manager responsible for the list had since left the company. 

"Our highest priority is to create transparency. As an immediate measure, we have decided to suspend our cooperation with the involved external service providers for the time being," said Bayer. "We are also currently investigating further appropriate consequences both internally and with regard to external parties.

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

FleishmanHillard had served as Monsanto's PR agency for several years, and was recently named one of Bayer Crop Science's three global agencies following the troubled $63bn acquisition of Monsanto.

Bayer head of corporate communications Christian Maertin told the Holmes Report that "no final decisions" had been taken regarding the relevant agency relationships.  

In a statement, Fleishman said that the firm "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."

Publicis Consultants said in a statement: "Between October 2016 and April 2017, we delivered public affairs work using public data for another PR agency. Publicis Consultants is currently conducting our own internal audit of that work. We manage all our client and agency work to meet the highest legal and ethical standards."

The French investigation is the latest in a series of issues to plague the deal, including potentially damaging costs from US class-action lawsuits that claim the Roundup weedkiller causes cancer. Bayer shares have plunged more than 40% since the first US judgment on Roundup. 

Additional reporting by Diana Marszalek