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.
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.