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Outrage of the Month: Disgraced CDC Director Joins Ranks of Most Ethically Challenged Trump Appointees

Health Letter, March 2018

Michael Carome, M.D

                                                  Katherine Welles/shutterstock

With the rampant disregard for ethics within President Donald Trump’s administration, competition is fierce for the award for most egregious financial conflicts of interest among his executive branch political appointees and senior advisers. But within the public health arena, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Brenda Fitzgerald became the leading contender after the stunning disclosure — first reported by Politico on Jan. 30 — that she had purchased stock in a tobacco company after taking the helm of the agency. Within hours of the revelation, Fitzgerald was forced to resign from her post.

As the nation’s leading public health agency, the CDC is charged with saving lives and protecting people from health threats. A major focus of the agency in fulfilling this mission is preventing and reducing tobacco use — the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. Having a CDC leader invest in tobacco company stocks is strikingly incompatible with that charge.

In fact, prior to the disclosure of her recent tobacco company investment, Fitzgerald already was facing increasing scrutiny from members of Congress regarding her and her husband’s failure to promptly divest their financial holdings that existed at the time of her appointment to be CDC director in July of last year.

For example, Politico reported on Jan. 18 that conflicts of interests involving her and her husband’s more than $300,000 investments in GW Ventures and Greenway Messenger were preventing Fitzgerald from testifying before Congress on many key issues, such as cancer detection and aspects of the opioid crisis. Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — including Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the committee — expressed frustration about Fitzgerald’s ongoing recusals because of her financial conflicts of interest.

Within this context, it was simply shocking to learn that after her appointment as CDC director, Fitzgerald purchased stock in global giant Japan Tobacco, as well as in food, pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, each of which created additional conflicts of interest. 

Fitzgerald claimed that the tobacco company stock purchase was made by her portfolio manager without her knowledge at the time. However, as Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, told The New York Times, not knowing about the investments a manager is making on your behalf is not an excuse. “You cannot just say the manager can do whatever he or she wants to do as long as I don’t know about it,” he said to the Times. “That’s not the conflict of interest code.”

Indeed, as soon as Fitzgerald became aware that Trump was considering appointing her to be CDC director, she should have provided her portfolio manager with explicit, detailed instructions not to invest in tobacco or any other companies that would have created further conflicts of interest with her role as CDC head and should have ensured that those instructions were followed.

Fitzgerald’s resignation was the only tenable response to her abject failure to comply with federal ethics laws. One would hope that Trump’s next appointee for CDC director will not be encumbered by similar financial conflicts of interest. But don’t count on it.