WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday called for Scott Gottlieb, who resigned as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in April, to leave Pfizer’s board of directors.
In a letter, the Massachusetts Democrat applauded Gottlieb’s tenure at FDA but suggested his decision to join the drug giant “smacks of corruption.”
Gottlieb’s decision to join a corporation he once regulated, Warren wrote, “makes the American people rightfully cynical and distrustful about whether high-level Trump Administration officials are working for them, or for their future corporate employers.”
Warren is among the leading candidates for her party’s presidential nomination in 2020. Many of her legislative priorities in recent years have fallen under FDA’s purview, including an aggressive bill aimed at lowering drug prices and a $100 billion proposal to counter the opioid epidemic.
Gottlieb announced last week that he would join Pfizer’s board beginning June 27, sparking immediate criticism that the company would have unmatched sway with the agency that regulates it. The move also allowed critics of the Trump administration to pounce on the perceived hypocrisy of an official who touted his work to lower drug costs accepting a leadership position with the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturer.
Gottlieb’s move, however, is typical.
Every FDA commissioner over the past 38 years has joined the board of a pharmaceutical company after leaving the agency, with the exception of David Kessler, who served as commissioner from 1990 to 1997. Robert Califf and Peggy Hamburg, the commissioners who immediately preceded Gottlieb, took posts at Cytokinetics and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, respectively.
In a statement, Gottlieb said he respected Warren and would respond to her letter “promptly, directly, and privately.”
“While I was at FDA, I had a productive relationship with Sen. Warren, working together to advance shared public health goals,” he said.
Despite her criticism, Warren’s letter also touched on her broad approval for Gottlieb’s accomplishments at the agency — rare praise for a Trump administration official from a liberal Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate.
“Unlike other administration officials who dedicated themselves to rolling back public health and consumer regulations, you often used your tenure to strengthen protections for Americans,” Warren wrote.
Warren, however, also wrote that Gottlieb is the second high-ranking federal official to leave government for industry in recent months. Warren also cited John Kelly, President Trump’s former chief of staff, who joined the board of a for-profit company operating a large detention center for migrant children in Florida.
Gottlieb also told STAT last week that he was “proud of the affiliation.”
“I’ve never been shy about my belief that America has the best biopharmaceutical sector in the world and this sector and its output of beneficial medicines is one of our great national achievements,” Gottlieb said in an email. “At the same time, I’m confident my record at FDA demonstrates I put the public health interest first and called balls and strikes based on the science and the public interest.”
In the letter, Warren also touted anti-corruption legislation that she said “would shut the revolving door and prohibit giant companies like Pfizer from wielding undue influence.”
That bill would prohibit many private companies from hiring or paying senior government officials in the four years following their departure.
Nicholas Florko contributed reporting.