Commentary

Conflicts Of Interest Catch Up With CDC Director Fitzgerald

Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald resigned yesterday, citing an inability to readily divest two holdings in her husband’s retirement account that “have imposed a broad recusal limiting her duties,” as a spokesman for the Dept. of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, put it. But they are not the only potential conflicts in Fitzgerald’s baggage, highlighting the thin line that exists between public service and the perception of influence peddling.

“The resignation was announced less than a day after Politico reported on Tuesday that Dr. Fitzgerald, 71, had traded in tobacco stocks even after taking the position at the public health agency. The tobacco trades were small: Dr. Fitzgerald bought between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of stock in Japan Tobacco in August, according to her financial disclosure forms, before she signed her ethics agreement. She sold the stock, as promised, in October,” Shiela Kaplan reports for the New York Times.

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The action came on the third day of the tenure of new HHS secretary Alex Azar, a former Eli Lilly executive who “has a really low tolerance for drama,” a source tells Politico’s Adam Cancryn and Jennifer Haberkorn.

“After a meeting with the CDC’s senior leadership early Wednesday, Fitzgerald submitted her resignation, according to a source familiar with the matter. An HHS spokesman said Azar accepted it, but it is unclear whether he demanded it. Rank-and-file staffers didn’t know about the decision until after HHS issued a news release later in the morning,” Cancryn and Haberkorn report.

“Sources inside HHS and the CDC say there were several reasons to believe Azar couldn’t stand for any more public relations problems in his agency. Fitzgerald’s lingering problem with an ethics recusal — she wouldn’t do work on cancer detection or some aspects of the opioid crisis — posed enough of a problem for the CDC,” they continue.

“As Georgia’s health secretary, Politico reported, Fitzgerald owned shares in five tobacco companies — Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International and Altria Group Inc.,” Jayne O’Donnell writes for USA Today.

“Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the news, ‘Yet another example of this administration’s dysfunction and questionable ethics.’ 

“Murray had earlier raised concerns that [Fitzgerald] had to recuse herself from so much of CDC's work that it ‘prevented her from fully engaging on public health issues including cancer, the opioid epidemic, and other epidemics that involved information technology,’” O’Donnell continues.

Fitzgerald told the Wall Street Journal’s Betsy McKay and Michelle Hackman that “she and her husband had been trying to sell the investments … but had trouble because they aren’t liquid. One investment is in an electronic-medical records company, the other in a company specializing in cancer screening.”

Fitzgerald said she “had been unaware of the tobacco-stock purchase,” and that she sold the holding as soon as she learned about it, McKay and Hackman write. 

“In an email, the Fitzgeralds said that the purchase was made by an outside entity contracted by the couple’s investment manager and that they didn’t have control over which stocks were bought and sold. Dr. Fitzgerald said that she had directed the stocks to be sold as soon as she learned what they were.”

The Politico story that revealed her tobacco holdings also makes the point that Fitzgerald “has made tobacco efforts a focus of her public health career, despite owning stock in the industry. She listed tobacco cessation as one of her primary priorities while still serving in the Georgia position in February 2017,” Sarah Karlin-Smith and Brianna Ehley write

Fitzgerald, an obstetrician-gynecologist, had been appointed last July by then-HHS secretary Dr. Tom Price, who resigned in September after reports surfaced about his use of private planes on the public dime. When Fitzgerald was commissioner of public health in Georgia, she came under fire for, as Grub Street’s Cliff Rainey put it last year, “letting Big Soda pay for anti-obesity initiatives.”

Rainey explains: “In a state with what was then the second-worst childhood-obesity rate, Fitzgerald launched a statewide program called SHAPE. This initiative encouraged schools to give kids an extra 30 minutes of exercise every day, which of course is great — assuming it’s combined with solid dietary advice.

“Fitzgerald’s initiative wasn’t. Feel free to hypothesize about why, but it’s worth noting that Coke wrote a $1 million check to fund the program.”

Center for Science in the Public Interest president Dr. Peter G. Lurie tried his best to be upbeat about Fitzgerald’s departure yesterday. 

“We hope — perhaps with undue optimism — that the next [CDC] director will be free of such glaring conflicts and bad judgment,” he said. 

3 comments about "Conflicts Of Interest Catch Up With CDC Director Fitzgerald".
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  1. Anne Zeiser from Azure Media, February 1, 2018 at 9:46 a.m.

    Great story! So using parallel logic, if the CDC's director must resign over ties to #BigTobacco (because tobacco causes #Cancer and is anti public health, which CDC is charged to protect) then EPA head Pruitt; Interior secretary Zinke; and Energy Secretary Perry also must be investigated and possibly resign because of their significant ties to #BigOil (because burning #fossilfuels causes #globalwarming and #climatechange and is anti environment, which those agencies are charged to protect). Just saying.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, February 1, 2018 at 11:28 a.m.

    It's like the pot calling the kettle black. What's good for the goose...Then again...dictatorships do not yield for equality or any such thing. Liquid or not, it all can be sold although the entire portion of the portfolio is sold even at a loss. (Investment = profit or loss) So she is either too ignorant for her job or she is a crook. She had a choice from the get go and she chose her detrimental investments over a public position. 

  3. Michael Margolies from Michael Margolies Photography & Design, February 1, 2018 at 6:26 p.m.

    Once again this is one sided liberal media ignoring the facts and focusing on a narrow set of information to ensure conservatives always come out looking bad. She did not buy the stocks, a portfolio manager did, for her husbands retirement fund. Just as they do for most investors who have managed accounts, mutual funds and RETFs 99% of the people out there have no idea how their retirement funds are invested. And selling them off is often at the discretion of the portfolio manager to d from the portfolio which is a complex and expensive effort.

    She did not specifically go out and buy tobacco, they were part of a portfolio that she was not even aware of until liberal media researchers looking for dirt came upon it. In her husbands retirement account, it wasn't even really hers.

    Now where was this level of scrutiny when Dems were in charge? Oh there wasn't any. Liberal media bias ensures no scrutiny is allowed on any of their darlings. And when it is found out they are always quick with an excuse. Seems they had no problems with the Clintons shady investments, Maxine Waters who is openly known for her dishonesty and cheating, Pelosi and her jet setting ways that far exceeded those of Tom Price who honorably stepped down. So why no demand for Pelosi? Because your hypocrites.

    This is more hysterical hypocrisy of a left bent on causing strive, chaos and spreading half truths.

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