The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald—whose short tenure has already been mired in conflicts of interest—resigned Wednesday after a report revealed she bought stock in a major tobacco company and others that were potential conflicts while directing the public health agency that leads the federal government's efforts to reduce tobacco use.
"Dr. Fitzgerald's resignation is shocking—not because of the extent of the conflicts of interest she was facing, but because she was actually held accountable for them....She isn't alone in attempting to profit off her position in the government."
—Morris Pearl, Patriotic Millionaires
Fitzgerald's resignation followed a Tuesday evening report by Politico, which obtained and published documents (pdf) showing that the "Trump administration's top public health official bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her leadership of the agency."
"Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex finanical interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties" and she "could not divest from them in a definitive time period," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a statement Wednesday.
Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush's chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, responded to the government's statement and called Fitzgerald's decision to purchase stock in tobacco "ridiculous," "tone deaf," and "just plain stupid."
"Complex finances" means a doctor who invests in tobacco stocks. Just plain stupid.
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) January 31, 2018
Since Fitzgerald stepped into the CDC role in July, she purchased between $1,001 and $15,000 of Japan Tobacco, Merck & Co., Bayer, and health insurance company Humana, as well as between $15,001 and $50,000 in U.S. Food Holding Co., according to the financial records.
The documents also showed that Fitzgerald sold the tobacco shares in late October and all of her holdings above $1,000 by late November, but bolstered intense congressional and public scrutiny she was already facing for investments that required her to recuse herself from key issues such as cancer detection and certain efforts to combat the national opioid crisis.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the government's statement "low grade baloney," adding:
Hallelujah! Opioid Brenda has RESIGNED!!!!! Having a CDC director who's recused from opioids, at a time when an opioid epidemic is laying waste to the lives of so many Americans, was extreme even for this administration! She didn't last a year. Good riddance, #OpioidBrenda! https://t.co/Eph1sR5jtS
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) January 31, 2018
Ethics experts who spoke with Politico and weighed in on social media called Fitzgerald's investments at best, "sloppy," and at worst, "legally problematic if she didn't recuse herself from government activities that could have affected her investments."
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the tobacco stock revelation was "stunning," and added, "It sends two messages, both of which are deeply disturbing."
"First, it undermines the credibility of a public official when they argue that tobacco is the No. 1 preventable cause of disease," Myers explained. "Second, and perhaps even worse, it indicates a public official is willing to put their personal profit above the ethics of investing in a company whose products cause so much harm."
Norm Eisen of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington predicted that several more Trump administration resignations are in the pipeline due to conflicts of interest, tweeting:
Attention headline writers, save this as a macro: _______ resigns over financial conflicts. You will be using it a lot in covering this administration. https://t.co/tkpuBIttoC
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) January 31, 2018
"Dr. Fitzgerald's resignation is shocking—not because of the extent of the conflicts of interest she was facing, but because she was actually held accountable for them," observed Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires. "She isn't alone in attempting to profit off her position in the government."
"There are countless members of Congress and high-ranking officials in the administration who stand to earn a windfall from the GOP tax bill in coming years, to say nothing of the high-paying lobbying jobs many of them have earned through their support for corporate tax cuts," Pearl added. "From taxes to healthcare to environmental protection, corporate profits and self-interest come first for our government officials, and they should all be held as accountable as Dr. Fitzgerald."