CDC Director Resigns Over Financial Conflicts

Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the nation’s top public health agency has resigned because of financial conflicts of interest. (AP Photo/David Tulis, File)

ATLANTA (CN) — Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned Wednesday after only six months on the job because of financial conflicts of interest.

In a statement, Alex Azar, who was sworn in as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services on Monday, announced Fitzgerald’s resignation , citing her “complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all her duties as the C.D.C. director.”

Azar continued: “Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period. After advising Secretary Azar of both the status of the financial interests and the scope of her recusal, Dr. Fitzgerald tendered, and the Secretary accepted, her resignation. The Secretary thanks Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald for her service and wishes her the best in all her endeavors.”

When Fitzgerald took the job, she owned a range of stocks, including holdings in beer and soda companies, the tobacco company Philip Morris International, and a number of health care companies.

She said she sold some but still has others because of financial restrictions that prevent her from selling them.

In December, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the senior democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, flagged some of her concerns about Fitzgerald. The committee oversees matters pertaining to the CDC and while the senator did not specifically call out Fitzgerald’s ties to the tobacco industry in a letter weighing her appointment, Murray shared her grievances over Fitzgerald’s ability to perform her role at all.

Fitzgerald’s ethics agreement required she avoid any government business which could impact cancer detection or health information technology.

This made Fitzgerald’s appointment unfeasible, Murray argued in December, since these arenas overlapped with “two of the most pervasive and urgent health challenges we face as a country.”

At the time, Fitzgerald dismissed the concerns in an interview with The Washington Post saying that she meticulously followed rules laid out by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I have been assured that I can participate in broad policy work. I’ve done everything the ethics office said that I should do,” Fitzgerald told The Post.

After joining the CDC on July 7, according to her financial disclosure forms, Fitzgerald purchased thousands of dollars in new stock holdings over August and September. Specifically in Japan Tobacco, with investments ranging from $1,001 to $15,000.

Under stipulations in The STOCK Act, any amount under $1,001 does not need to be reported.

Fitzgerald also purchased stock with health insurance company Humana and pharmaceutical giants Bayer and Merck and Company, respectively.  Fitzgerald also reportedly purchased stocks ranging from $15,001 to $50,000 in U.S. Food Holding Corporation, a food distributor for restaurant and other institutions connected to the industries like healthcare, hospitality, education and more.

The day after Fitzgerald made her investment with Japan Tobacco, Fitzgerald’s calendars depict she toured the CDC’s Tobacco  to learn of the ill effects  caused by harmful chemicals in tobacco.

Fitzgerald did not sell her shares of the tobacco stock until October 26, months after her visit. The rest of her stock holdings valued over $1,000 were sold off by Nov. 21, a full four months after assuming her role as director.

Peter Lurie is the former associate commissioner for public health strategy at the Food and Drug Administration. He now serves as  president of Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health and consumer safety think tank.

On Wednesday, he likened Fitzgerald’s resignation as a the result of a “contagious” erosion of “basic ethical norms” endemic to the Trump administration.

“If the president and other senior White House officials do not see the need to divest themselves of their business interests, why should the director of the CDC?” Lurie said. “Seen in that broader context, Fitzgerald’s appointment and her brief, ineffective tenure is just a symptom of a gravely serious ethical disease afflicting this administration. It’s an appointment that never should have been made. We hope—perhaps with undue optimism—that the next director will be free of such glaring conflicts and bad judgment.”

The Health and Human Services Department was rocked last year after the Trump-appointed head of the organization, Secretary Tom Price, resigned after it was revealed he used taxpayer funds to pay for personal travel.

On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray revisited her concerns with Fitzgerald.

“It is unacceptable that the person responsible for leading our nation’s public health efforts has, for months, been unable to fully engage in the critical work she was appointed to do. Dr. Fitzgerald’s tenure was unfortunately the latest example of the Trump Administration’s dysfunction and lax ethical standards,” Murray said in a statement.

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