UPDATED: Brenda Fitzgerald resigned, according to an announcement from the CDC.
In the latest example of conflicts of interest within the Trump administration, a top public health official purchased shares in a major tobacco company only one month before her job began as the head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — an agency dedicated to promoting public health and reducing tobacco use.
For four months, Brenda Fitzgerald held shares in Japan Tobacco, described by Politico as "one of the largest such companies in the world, which sells four tobacco brands in the U.S. through a subsidiary," before divesting, according to documents obtained by the site. But Fitzgerald also made about a dozen other new investments since becoming the agency's director on July 7. Prior to taking the job, she also held stock in at least five other tobacco companies.
The CDC is an agency tasked with promoting public health, and part of its mission includes curbing smoking, which make Fitzgerald's purchase of tobacco stock both glaring and controversial. Several ethics experts have also blasted Fitzgerald for her stock holdings.
"You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance," Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer under the Bush administration, told Politico. He added that the move was "tone deaf" and that it "stinks to the high heaven" even if she met all legal requirements.
"It gives you a window, I think, into her value system," Kathleen Clark, a Washington University law professor with a focus on government ethics, told Politico. "It doesn’t make her a criminal, but it does raise the question of what are her commitments? What are her values, and are they consistent with this government agency that is dedicated to the public health? Frankly, she loses some credibility."
Fitzgerald "didn’t enter into a formal ethics agreement with HHS until two months after taking office," according to Politico.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the situation is that Fitzgerald has championed the fight against big tobacco for her entire career, even though she owned stock in the industry.
She listed tobacco cessation as one of her primary priorities while still serving in the Georgia position in February 2017. Prior to accepting the CDC position, 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. HHS did not respond to questions about why she invested in tobacco companies while working to reduce tobacco consumption.
A Health and Human Services spokesperson defended Fitzgerald, despite acknowledging her "potentially conflicting stock holdings," because she has since divested.
Conflicts of interest are, of course, run-of-the-mill under President Donald Trump's administration, considering the president himself potentially has several. Fitzgerald's previous holdings, especially due to the fact that she purchased them after taking her new job, represent an alarming trend of conflicts of interest that the Trump administration has sought to normalize across various federal agencies.