CDC director resigns following report she purchased Big Tobacco stock after taking office

HHS previously excused Brenda Fitzgerald's stock purchases.

Credit: (Photo by Melissa Golden for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Credit: (Photo by Melissa Golden for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A spokesperson for newly confirmed Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar announced on Wednesday that the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, had resigned earlier in the morning.

The HHS spokesperson said that Azar had accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation, who resigned “due to the nature of…financial interests” from which she had been unable to divest in a timely manner.

Fitzgerald’s resignation has reportedly blindsided the CDC, which was not informed of the action. HHS has not yet named an acting director to serve in Fitzgerald’s absence.

Politico reported Tuesday that Fitzgerald had invested a fair amount of money in Big Tobacco shortly after being installed as top official at the CDC, which is charged with reducing tobacco use. Fitzgerald reportedly bought between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of stock in Japan Tobacco after assuming leadership of the CDC last July. Japan Tobacco sells several different cigarette brands in the U.S. through a subsidiary, including Camels, American Spirits, and Winstons.

Fitzgerald also purchased between $1,001 and $15,000 each of stock in Merck & Co., Bayer, and health insurance company Humana, as well as between $15,001 and $50,000 in US Food Holding Co.

The HHS previously excused Fitzgerald’s stock purchases, saying they were handled by her financial manager and subsequently sold off.

“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. During the divestiture process, her financial account manager purchased some potentially conflicting stock holdings,” a spokesperson for the HHS told Politico on Tuesday. “These additional purchases did not change the scope of Dr. Fitzgerald’s recusal obligations, and Dr. Fitzgerald has since also divested of these newly acquired potentially conflicting publicly traded stock holdings.”

Fitzgerald’s swift resignation has turned the spotlight back on President Trump, whose various financial and business conflicts have been the subject of heavy criticism.

Shortly before Trump took office, he placed his businesses in a trust run by his two sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, who frequently serve as his political surrogates, despite previously promising to stay out of the president’s political dealings. Trump created the trust in order to “completely isolat[e] himself from his business interests,” his lawyer stated in January 2017.

The setup, however, is insufficient and far from a complete divestitureAs ProPublica reported, Trump can draw money from his more than 400 businesses at any time, without disclosing it to the American public.

The president is also facing several lawsuits in U.S. District Court regarding potential conflicts of interest regarding his Washington D.C. hotel. One of the suits, filed by the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland, alleges that the Trump International Hotel provides unfair competition to convention centers in Washington, Baltimore, and Bethesda, as well as the MGM Casino at National Harbor. Maryland also claims the state is losing tax revenue when the Trump hotel draws room and event bookings from private businesses in the state.

The Trump International Hotel in Washington is seen as Trump’s biggest source of conflicts. In June 2017, the hotel received $270,000 from the Saudi government. The money covered lodging, catering and parking expenses at the hotel. Since that time, the hotel has raked in hundreds of thousands in profits from various other foreign governments.