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CDC director resigns over her tobacco and other investments

Melissa Golden/Washington Post

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald’s “complex financial interests” made her job difficult, her boss said.

By Sheila Kaplan  

WASHINGTON — The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned Wednesday, in the middle of the nation’s worst flu epidemic in nearly a decade, because of her troubling financial investments in tobacco and health care companies that posed potential conflicts of interest.

Alex Azar, the newly appointed secretary of Health and Human Services, announced the resignation of the director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald. An agency statement cited her “complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all her duties as the CDC director.”

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The statement continued:

“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.”

Azar, a former executive with Eli Lilly, made the decision on his third day running the sprawling HHS agency. Dr. Anne Schuchat, a veteran official with the CDC, was named acting director.

The resignation was announced less than a day after Politico reported that Fitzgerald, 71, had traded in tobacco stocks even after taking the position at the public health agency. Her financial investments and potential conflicts of interest were a source of concern in recent months for some members of Congress, especially when she had to recuse herself from appearing before them on certain agency matters.

A former Georgia health commissioner, Fitzgerald was appointed to the federal agency in July by Tom Price, a fellow Georgian who served as Trump’s first HHS secretary — until he too was forced to resign under fire, for traveling extensively on private jets and expensing more than $400,000 for those trips to the government.

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Both Fitzgerald and Price had controversial investments in health care and drug companies; Fitzgerald also had financial interests (along with her husband) in several major tobacco companies.

In a September ethics agreement, she said she would divest from many stocks, including the tobacco holdings, that might pose a conflict of interest. The companies included CVS Health, Quest Diagnostics, AbbVie, Merck, and Zimmer Biomet Holdings. But she also said that she and her husband, Thomas Fitzgerald, were unable to divest from some holdings because of legal or contractual restrictions. Those were GW Ventures and Greenway Messenger, which are limited liability companies formed to invest in Greenway Health LLC, an electronic health information company, and Isommune, a biotech company focusing on early cancer detection.

Fitzgerald pledged to avoid any CDC work that would affect those holdings, drawing criticism from Democrats who said such recusals would limit her effectiveness. In December, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel that oversees the agency, expressed concerns that Fitzgerald’s recusals on issues involving cancer and opioids prohibited her from dealing with two of the biggest health problems in the country.

“It is unacceptable that the person responsible for leading our nation’s public health efforts has, for months, been unable to fully engage in the critical work she was appointed to do,” Murray said Wednesday. “Dr. Fitzgerald’s tenure was unfortunately the latest example of the Trump administration’s dysfunction and lax ethical standards.”

But her predecessor at the CDC, Tom Frieden, issued a statement that suggested the latest investments causing concern — including one in Japan Tobacco — were done by a portfolio manager without her knowledge. “I have spoken with Dr. Fitzgerald and believe her when she says that she was unaware that a tobacco company investment had been made,” Frieden said. “She understands that any affiliation between the tobacco industry and public health is unacceptable, and that when she learned of it, she directed that it be sold.”

A two-time Republican congressional candidate, Fitzgerald is an obstetrician-gynecologist.

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As the state’s public health chief, Fitzgerald made fighting childhood obesity one of her highest priorities. But she drew criticism from public health officials for accepting $1 million to pay for the program from Coca-Cola.

Her program drew heavily from the soda giant’s playbook, emphasizing Coke’s contention that exercise — rather than calorie control — is key to weight loss.