Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resigned on Wednesday following a report that she had invested in tobacco and pharmaceutical company stocks while overseeing an agency tasked with promoting public health.
Her resignation, which came less than 24 hours after the disclosure of her investments by Politico, was announced in a brief statement by new Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was sworn in earlier this week.
CDC staff members were not immediately informed of Fitzgerald’s resignation, STAT has learned; they heard of it through news reports.
By late morning, however, Azar emailed staff to say that Dr. Anne Schuchat, the agency’s principal deputy director, had been named acting director. Schuchat, a longtime CDC hand, had also filled that role between the start of President Trump’s inauguration and Fitzgerald’s appointment last July.
Fitzgerald had been under fire for months for not divesting some of her financial holdings. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democrat on the powerful Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has been openly critical of how long it has taken for Fitzgerald to square away her conflicts of interest, which have prevented her from being able to testify before Congress.
Because of her holdings, Fitzgerald also had to recuse herself from work in some key fields of CDC operations, such as the opioid epidemic, cancer, and health information technology.
Following her resignation, Murray called Fitzgerald’s case “yet another example of this administration’s dysfunction and questionable ethics.”
“It is unacceptable that the person responsible for leading our nation’s public health efforts has, for months, been unable to fully engage in the critical work she was appointed to do,” Murray said in a statement.
Fitzgerald had been seen as a close ally of former health secretary Tom Price, who stepped down after Politico reported his propensity to travel on private planes at enormous expense to taxpayers.
The HHS statement said that Fitzgerald owns “certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all her duties as the CDC director.”
It said that Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period, due to the nature of the investments. After advising Azar of the problem, she offered her resignation and he accepted.
Fitzgerald, a longtime OB-GYN from Georgia, served as that state’s public health commissioner before being named head of the CDC.
According to Politico, after assuming her role at the CDC on July 7, Fitzgerald purchased between $1,001 and $15,000 of Japan Tobacco, one of the largest such companies in the world. She also purchased stocks of pharma giants Merck and Bayer after being named CDC director.
Records obtained under the Stock Act, which requires disclosures of transactions over $1,000, showed Fitzgerald sold the shares of Japan Tobacco on Oct. 26 and all of her stock holdings above $1,000 by Nov. 21, more than four months after she became CDC director.
This story has been updated with the naming of Dr. Anne Schuchat as acting director and comments from Sen. Patty Murray.