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The scandal that just forced the CDC director to resign, explained

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald seems to have a history of investing in tobacco companies.

Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia Department of Public Health commissioner, left, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in October, 2014.
Brenda Fitzgerald, left, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014.
David Tulis/AP

Brenda Fitzgerald, the Georgia doctor who Trump appointed to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has resigned amid allegations of conflicts of interest.

The allegations came to light Tuesday evening when Politico reported that Fitzgerald had purchased shares in a tobacco company one month after taking her position at the agency — but also that she had a history of tobacco investments prior to taking her post at CDC.

The ridiculousness of this is obvious: Fitzgerald led a federal agency focused on driving down rates of smoking — the No. 1 preventable cause of disease and death in the United States.

By Wednesday morning, HHS released a statement confirming Fitzgerald’s resignation. “After advising [HHS] Secretary Azar of both the status of the financial interests and the scope of her recusal,” the statement read, “Dr. Fitzgerald tendered, and the Secretary accepted, her resignation.”

The move happened so swiftly that, as of Wednesday morning, staff at the agency still hadn’t even been officially informed of her resignation. By noon, an email went out notifying them of the news and that Dr. Anne Schuchat, who was CDC’s principal deputy director, would take over as acting director.

Fitzgerald had already been criticized for divesting older financial holdings in food and drug companies too slowly, and for her cozy relationship with the soda industry. According to a New York Times report, as health minister of Georgia, she accepted money from Coca-Cola in 2013 to pay for an exercise program for children aimed at addressing the state’s out of control childhood obesity crisis.

But the tobacco links Politico uncovered were more alarming because they reportedly involved actions Fitzgerald took while she was already in charge of the nation’s public health agency. And perhaps even more damning, they appeared to be part of a long pattern of investment in tobacco companies. According to Politico, before taking her position at CDC, “she owned stock in five other tobacco companies: Reynolds American, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Philip Morris International, and Altria Group Inc. — all legal under Georgia’s ethics rules.”

Fitzgerald has publicly dedicated her career to fighting tobacco, but Politico uncovered that her private investments in the industry date back much further than her current posting. The trading patterns violated ethical norms for government officials and also raised questions about her values as a public health authority.

The resignation comes at a difficult time for the CDC

Despite the reports of conflicts of interest, former top public health officials say Fitzgerald had a strong track record in public health.

“Dr. Fitzgerald impressed me as someone who was committed to supporting public health and protecting Americans,” said Tom Frieden, the previous CDC director and President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies. “I wish her well and hope the next director remains focused on using science to protect Americans from threats that arise in this country and anywhere in the world.”

“I believe she was committed to public health and she was a proven leader in the field,” said John Auerbach, a former CDC official and president and CEO of the public health nonprofit the Trust for America’s Health.

Fitzgerald’s resignation comes at a difficult time for CDC and for public health. There’s a serious flu epidemic underway, and the CDC has also been actively involved in responding to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. As we reported yesterday, the Trump administration has proposed $1.2 billion in cuts to the CDC’s budget for fiscal year 2018 and has already excised $100 million from the CDC’s Public Health and Prevention Fund through the tax bill, starting in 2019.

“We need strong leadership and an understanding of the importance of the work that’s done at CDC,” said Auerbach. And the resignation is a blow to the CDC’s ability to lead.

This is the second major health resignation under Trump

Fitzgerald isn’t the first Trump-appointed health leader step down recently. Tom Price, Trump’s first health and human services secretary, resigned in September.

The scandal that sank Price was a different series of Politico reports about his use of private jets, taking charter flights that cost tens of thousands of dollars instead of commercial flights that would cost hundreds, as was usual for his predecessors. The reports painted a picture of a top Trump official using taxpayer dollars to fly in luxury, visit his own properties, and even stop off for lunch in Nashville with his son.

The private flights doomed Price, who quickly lost favor with the president. Price’s bill eventually totaled nearly $1 million; he had offered to pay back $52,000 before finally stepping down.

These weren’t the first ethical questions about Price either. After he was nominated to lead HHS, Price endured numerous reports about his investments in health care stocks while serving as a Congress member for Georgia’s Sixth District.