Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Brenda Fitzgerald resigned Wednesday, one day after Politico exposed purchases she had made in tobacco stocks after taking over as the head of the department.
As CDC director, Fitzgerald was responsible for leading the charge on food safety, health threats, and other issues, including reducing the use of tobacco use, which is one the leading causes of preventable disease and death. Many observers saw her purchase of tobacco stocks as an ethical conflict of interest.
The newly sworn-in Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar accepted Fitzgerald's resignation, according to a statement issued Wednesday by HHS spokesman Matt Loyd. Fitzgerald had been in her role since July.
After Fitzgerald took over as director of the CDC, she invested between $1,001 and $15,000 in one of the world's largest tobacco companies, Japan Tobacco, Politico reported.
“Like all presidential personnel, Dr. Fitzgerald’s financial holdings were reviewed by the HHS Ethics Office, and she was instructed to divest of certain holdings that may pose a conflict of interest," a HHS spokesman told Politico.
Politico reported that it obtained records under the Stock Act that showed she waited more than four months to divest her shares.
A spokesman for HHS said that "the potentially conflicting" stock purchases were "handled by her financial manager and that she subsequently sold them."
What did the HHS statement say?
This morning Secretary Azar accepted Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald’s resignation as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC Director. 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.
What do critics say?
"It's just completely untenable — you can't be the CDC director and buy stock in [tobacco companies] after you've been appointed," said Emily Holubowich, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Health Funding.
What do supporters say?
“She was doing a good job of leading the CDC,” Trust for America’s Health President and CEO John Auerbach told Politico, adding he’s “disappointed because the CDC’s work is extremely important and it needs to have support from the administration and from Congress.”
In her former role as Georgia's Department of Public Health commissioner, Fitzgerald listed tobacco cessation as one of her top priorities and said she has focused much of her career on those efforts.
Fitzgerald also owned stock in five other tobacco companies: Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, and Altria Group Inc., before taking the lead role at the CDC.
Those investments were legal under Georgia’s ethics rules.