Brenda Fitzgerald has been forced to resign as director of America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) thanks to one of the most blatant and pointless ethics violations in recent history. The Trump-appointee, who has repeatedly been hamstrung by conflicts of interests caused by her personal finances, was reported by Politico yesterday to have bought stock in global giant, Japan Tobacco. Within twenty-four hours of the purchase being made public, Brenda Fitzgerald had resigned.
Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)
Convincing people of all ages to stop smoking has been a leading priority for the CDC for decades. In November Brenda Fitzgerald stated, “Too many Americans are harmed by cigarette smoking, which is the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and disease.”
Profiting financially from a product with a long history of killing Americans turned out to be a fatal judgement lapse for a CDC director. Who knew?
Fitzgerald has a long history with tobacco stocks. At the time of her appointment in July she held stocks in five tobacco companies: Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, and Altria Group Inc. She had held these quite happily while serving in her previous role as Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, but the ethical standards required for the Federal position are set higher.
As the CDC is located in Atlanta, Georgia, Brenda Fitzgerald was not required to make much of a move when she assumed command of the Federal agency, but she was required to start divesting herself of a lot of her stock portfolio. Besides the tobacco stocks she also had stakes in several drug and food makers, including Bayer, Merck, US Food, and health insurance provider Humana.
Brenda Fitzgerald, where are you?
Months into her tenure, and Fitzgerald still had not divested herself of all offending stocks. Three times she had to send deputies to Congress to testify in hearings about the opioid crisis alongside other agencies represented by their actual director. This meant that not only was she struggling to do her job, but she also suffered from a much lower public profile than normal for a CDC director.
According to a statement from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued today, “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.”
Her position as CDC director had a definitive time period, at least. It ended today when she officially tendered her resignation to HHS secretary Alex Azar – a position Azar assumed only on Monday. Looks like one of his first jobs will be finding a new CDC director.