By Ruth Bender
BERLIN -- Monsanto Co.'s past public-relations tactics in Europe didn't break the law, according to a report commissioned by Bayer AG, in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals group's latest effort to clear the legal and reputational liabilities caused by its acquisition of the agrochemical company.
Bayer has been in crisis mode since closing the Monsanto deal in 2018. In the past year, it has lost three jury trials alleging that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide causes cancer, which sent its share price falling by roughly a third. It is also facing bans on glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup weedkillers, in Europe, including in its home market of Germany, due to the herbicide's alleged environmental risks.
A separate front opened in May after French prosecutors launched an investigation following French media reports that Monsanto and a public-relations firm had drawn up lists in 2016 of hundreds of influential French personalities, some of whom had raised concerns about possible risks posed by Monsanto's products.
While compiling so-called stakeholder lists is common practice in public relations, the reports alleged that they included sensitive personal information that wasn't publicly available, whose storage without permission can be illegal in some European Union countries.
However, Bayer said Thursday that law firm Sidley Austin LLP had examined the allegations and found no evidence that the lists were illegal.
Monsanto has long been a lighting rod for environmentalists in Europe, who see it as a symbol for practices they oppose, from the genetic engineering of crops to the intensive use of pesticide in agriculture -- a reputational baggage Bayer has now inherited.
Bayer has appealed the Roundup court verdicts in the U.S., insists Roundup is safe when used with proper precautions and has criticized the bans on glyphosate in Germany and Austria as unscientific.
As part of its effort to clear its name, Bayer also hired Matthias Berninger, a former Green Party politician in Germany, as its head of public affairs and sustainability.
People familiar with the matter said Mr. Berninger caused consternation among former Monsanto employees in the U.S. when he publicly apologized in May for the company's stakeholder lists, before it was established whether the practice was illegal.
Sidley Austin said it assessed over 2.4 million documents in relation to the lists, which included 1,500 people, mostly in the EU -- from journalists to officials working in EU institutions -- but also in the U.S.
In its 49-page report, the law firm said the lists were "detailed, methodical, and designed to strongly advocate Monsanto's positions to stakeholders and to the public," but there was no evidence of illegal surveillance of personal hobbies or leisure activities or information that went beyond what was in the public domain.
The German Council for Public Relations in July also concluded that there was no wrongdoing.
The French prosecutor's office couldn't immediately be reached to comment on the status of its probe.
A Bayer spokesman said the French prosecutor's investigations were ongoing. Bayer hasn't been presented with formal allegations or charges from any data protection authority or other body, either in France or elsewhere in the EU.
Write to Ruth Bender at Ruth.Bender@wsj.com