In the midst of the worst flu epidemic in years and the on-going opioid crisis, the Trump administration’s top public health official resigned today under fire after it was reported she had made stock purchases since taking office that were unethical if not illegal.
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald had been appointed the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July and then in September purchased shares in tobacco companies, even though one of the most important missions in her new job is to get people to stop smoking and keep children from starting the tobacco habit.
After years of efforts to stop the habit, tobacco smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. so it was no small matter when she purchased stock in Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, Altria Group and Japan Tobacco, which markets at least five brands of cigarettes.
Fitzgerald, who claimed she was an anti-smoking advocate when she previously held the position of Georgia’s Public Health Commissioner, was already under fire from lawmakers for being slow to sell other stocks she owned in healthcare companies, raising serious ethical issues.
She was a stockholder in the pharmaceutical companies Merck and Bayer, as well as the health insurance company Humana, according to a report by Politico, which broke the story of her unethical tobacco stock purchases last night.
As a result of that conflict of interest, Fitzgerald was not able to testify before Congress several times several times, including important sessions on the opioid crisis, which Trump has declared a national emergency.
“On at least three occasions since Director Fitzgerald’s appointment in July,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington), “CDC has sent Fitzgerald’s deputies to testify at Congressional hearings alongside the heads of other government agencies, that explored the federal response to the opioid crisis.”
The former director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, tweeted out his praise at the news of her resignation.
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
This is the latest in a string of embarrassments for the Department of Health and Human Services, which has oversight of the CDC.
Fitzgerald’s resignation was accepted by Alex Azar, who only last week was confirmed by the Senate to take the top job at HHS after the abrupt resignation of Tom Price in July after it was revealed that he had made numerous charter airplane flights at government expense, to the point it was considered excessive.
Azar’s appointment was also controversial as she sued to be an executive with the U.S. operations of Lilly, during a period in which the big drug company raised prices on many prescription medicines that are a life and death matter for a lot of Americans.
Now Fitzgerald has set a new low for her ethics and a speed record for her departure.
“It’s stunning,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Politico. “It sends two messages, both of which are deeply disturbing.”
“First,” continued Myers, “it undermines the credibility of a public official when they argue that tobacco is the number one preventable cause of disease.
“Second,” he added, “and perhaps even worse, it indicates a public official is willing to put their personal profit above theethicss of investing in a company whose products cause so much harm.”
“It gives you a window, I think, into her value system,” Kathleen Clark, who teaches government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, told Politico. “it doesn’t make her a criminal, but it does raise the question of what are her commitments? What are her values, an are they consistent with this government agency that is dedicated to the pubic health? Frankly, she loses some credibility.”
This unfortunate situation is of Fitzgerald’s making but it also reflects the corrupt practice of the Trump administration in choosing people who have major ties to the companies and industry they are supposed to act as a watchdog over.
Under President Obama and most other past presidents, the policy was to avoid the kind of blatant conflicts of interest which seem to be a hallmark of Trump’s choices.
While Fitzgerald has been sent packing back to Georgia, the Trump policy of making inappropriate choices remains in Washington ready to do more damage.