The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned Wednesday over financial conflicts of interest involving her investments in health care businesses.
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald's complex financial investments presented conflicts that made it difficult to do her job, according to a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC. In an ethics agreement filed in September, Fitzgerald had said that legal and contractual restrictions prevented her from selling the two investments.
A new HHS head, Alex Azar, who took office on Monday, accepted her resignation Wednesday, effective immediately.
Fitzgerald's investments were "limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as CDC Director," HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said in the statement. "Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period."
The news comes less than a day after Politico reported that Fitzgerald bought shares in a tobacco company while she was leading the CDC. An HHS representative told the news outlet that "the potentially conflicting" stock purchases were handled by a financial manager, and that Fitzgerald later sold them.
The CDC oversees the federal government's anti-smoking initiatives.
Before she became the CDC's chief, she owned a range of stocks, including holdings in beer and soda companies, the tobacco company Philip Morris International, and a number of health care companies. She said she sold the stocks, but in December, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) wrote Fitzgerald saying she was concerned about the unresolved financial holdings.
In the ethics agreement, Fitzgerald discussed long-term investments in an electronic medical records company and a biotech startup that focuses on early cancer detection. She said in the agreement that she would not participate in matters that might affect those companies. Those investments prevented her from talking about cancer and prescription drug monitoring programs, Murray wrote.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that a month after becoming CDC director, Fitzgerald's financial manager bought new stocks, including shares in Japan Tobacco and the drug companies Bayer and Merck & Co. Those stocks were later sold, Politico reported.
Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment. Her predecessor, Dr. Tom Frieden, said he talked to her after the Politico story came out, and Fitzgerald told him she didn't know about the purchase of the stocks when they were made.
"I have spoken with Dr. Fitzgerald and believe her when she says that she was unaware that a tobacco company investment had been made, 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," Frieden said in a statement.
Fitzgerald, 71, was a longtime OB-GYN in the Atlanta area, a former major in the U.S. Air Force, and campaigned twice, unsuccessfully, as a Republican candidate for Congress in the 1990s. She led Georgia's state health department for six years before being tapped for the CDC job.
Fitzgerald kept a low-profile in the job. She said she wanted to spend time learning about the agency, but also acknowledged a financial conflict of interest kept her from appearing at a Congressional hearing on opioids in early October.
She was appointed by Dr. Tom Price, who was a Republican congressman from Georgia before Trump picked him to head HHS. Price resigned in late September after his costly travel on chartered planes triggered investigations and angered Trump.
Murray issued a statement Wednesday after Fitzgerald's resignation.
"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. Dr. Fitzgerald's tenure was unfortunately the latest example of the Trump Administration's dysfunction and lax ethical standards," Murray said.
The CDC, the nation's top public health agency, is the only federal agency headquartered outside of Washington, D.C. It has nearly 12,000 employees, and about three-quarters of them are based in the Atlanta area.