The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned her position on Wednesday after just half a year because of “complex financial interests” that repeatedly forced her to recuse herself from the agency’s activities and kept her from testifying before lawmakers on public health issues.
According to a statement from the Health and Human Services Department, Secretary Alex Azar, who was sworn in just two days ago, accepted Brenda Fitzgerald’s resignation because she could not divest from those interests “in a definitive time period.”
Fitzgerald, 71, a physician who served as the Georgia public health commissioner until her appointment to the CDC post in July, said in an interview late last year that she already had divested from many stock holdings. But she and her husband were legally obligated to maintain other investments in cancer detection and health information technology, according to her ethics agreement, requiring Fitzgerald to pledge to avoid government business that might affect those interests.
In Congress, some lawmakers had become increasingly concerned over Fitzgerald’s ability to do her job effectively.
“I am concerned that you cannot perform the role of CDC director while being largely recused from matters pertaining to cancer and opioids, two of the most pervasive and urgent health challenges we face as a country,” Sen. Patty Murray, Wash., the senior Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the CDC, wrote in a letter in December.
Fitzgerald had dismissed those concerns, saying she was following ethics rules laid out by HHS and that her recusals were “very limited.”
The ethics issues were raised in a broader context of her general leadership at the agency, which President Donald Trump has targeted for deep budget cuts. Since her appointment, Fitzgerald has made few public statements. She waited 133 days before holding her first agencywide staff meeting, on Nov. 17. And she canceled at least one scheduled appearance before Congress and sent deputies on other occasions to testify about the nation’s opioid crisis.
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On Tuesday, Politico reported that Fitzgerald had purchased shares in a tobacco company shortly after becoming CDC director.
An obstetrician-gynecologist for 30 years, Fitzgerald served as a major in the Air Force and ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice in the 1990s. Named Georgia’s public health chief in 2011, Fitzgerald championed early child development, tobacco control and obesity prevention. She has been criticized for accepting funds from the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Foundation for a childhood obesity program.