Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resigned Wednesday after a news outlet detailed stock trades that appeared to present a conflict of interest.
The resignation marks the second of a high-ranking health official in the Trump administration from Georgia, following the departure of Tom Price of Roswell as secretary of health and human services.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said Fitzgerald, who previously served as Georgia’s top public health official, tendered her resignation after detailing the scope of her financial holdings to health chief Alex Azar.
“Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC director,” spokesman Matt Lloyd said.
“Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period,” he added.
The news came less than a day after Politico reported that Fitzgerald, 71, purchased tobacco company stock a month after she took the high-profile job. That raised eyebrows since the CDC is tasked with reducing tobacco use and promoting public health.
An HHS spokesman told the news outlet that the stock purchases were made by Fitzgerald’s financial manager and that she later divested.
The swiftness of Fitzgerald’s resignation left many in the health care community stunned. It comes as the CDC, which employs thousands of employees across several campuses in metro Atlanta, is dealing with a particularly deadly flu season.
Her departure also comes several weeks after Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington raised questions about Fitzgerald’s ability to fully tackle two of the biggest items on the $7 billion agency’s plate — fighting the opioid crisis and cancer — given her other previous investments.
“I repeatedly raised concerns about Fitzgerald’s conflicts of interest and broad recusals from work impacting public health issues like cancer and opioids — this is yet another example of this Administration’s dysfunction and questionable ethics,” Murray tweeted Wednesday.
Anne Schuchat, a CDC veteran and the agency’s principal deputy director who served as acting director prior to Fitzgerald’s arrival, is serving again as an acting replacement until a permanent successor can be named.
Trained as an obstetrician-gynecologist, Fitzgerald was tapped in July by the Trump administration to lead the CDC after serving for six years as the first head of the Georgia Department of Public Health.
She has been a relatively low-key presence at the agency ever since, making few public statements and sending deputies to testify at several Capitol Hill hearings.
But Fitzgerald did find herself caught in an uproar on a few occasions, including last month after reports surfaced that the CDC and other federal health agencies were being barred from using words such as “evidence-based,” “vulnerable” and “diversity” in their budget documents.
She fired back at those reports, denying that any words were banned at the CDC.
“We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs,” she said.
Fitzgerald was also criticized for cracking down on the agency’s outreach to the media and public, as well as for accepting $1 million from Coca-Cola for an anti-childhood obesity initiative while she led the Georgia Department of Public Health.
As Georgia’s top health official, she won praise for her efforts to combat the spread of the Zika and Ebola viruses. She also helped reduce wait times for a program that provides lifesaving medications to thousands of uninsured Georgians with HIV or AIDS.
Fitzgerald is the second top health appointee from Georgia to resign from the Trump administration under scrutiny. Price, who helped bring Fitzgerald on board, stepped down from his Cabinet post in September after news reports detailed a series of private charter flights he took on the public’s dime.
Nearly all Georgia elected officials kept their distance from Fitzgerald on Wednesday, but one who did defend her was her Obama-era predecessor, Tom Frieden.
“I have spoken with Dr. Fitzgerald and believe her when she says that she was unaware that a tobacco company investment had been made,” he tweeted. “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.”
“Dr. Fitzgerald impressed me as someone who was committed to supporting public health and protecting Americans,” Frieden added.
Georgia retains some influence over health at the top. Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue remains the U.S. secretary of agriculture, overseeing regulation of farm production, school lunches and food stamps.
For some, the incident, following on the heels of the Price scandal, highlights problems Georgia has with the clarity of conflict-of-interest lines for public officials.
The Center for Public Integrity in 2012 ranked Georgia the worst state in the nation in its State Integrity Investigation, finding “a gaping divide between Georgia’s legal standards for public accountability, on the one hand, and everyday practice.” That report focused in part on state lawmakers’ acceptance of campaign donations from the people and organizations the state regulates.
In addition, the state in 2014 paid out millions of dollars to former employees of the state ethics commission to settle allegations they had been forced out for actively pursuing an investigation into the governor’s campaign.
Fitzgerald was a Georgia agency director, not a lawmaker. But clear-cut rules on conflicts of interest are hard to come by for them, except that they can’t do business with their own agencies. And if they want advice, they have to find out who to talk to at the state Attorney General’s Office.
“I definitely think that Georgia needs to, at some point in the very near future, look at assigning conflicts of interest to an agency that can oversee it and give guidance,” said Rick Thompson, a former executive secretary of the state ethics commission.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general declined to comment.
Maybe if Fitzgerald had specific guidance on what Georgia restricts and how little it restricts compared with the federal government, Thompson said, she could have forwarded the information to her investment manager and wouldn’t have tripped up.
“Sometimes people aren’t trying to do the wrong thing,” he said. “They just need guidance.”
Thompson would not criticize the Attorney General’s Office per se, or even Georgia’s conflict-of-interest rules. He just says that with a couple of exceptions, “there are no rules.”
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