Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald made headlines recently when it was discovered that she engaged in trading tobacco industry stocks while head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resulting in Fitzgerald resigning her position on Wednesday.
But she is not the only official in Washington with such conflicts - Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have both reported buying and selling tobacco company stocks while sitting on committees that deal with health-related legislation and agencies.
The difference is that, unlike employees of the executive branch, lawmakers are not barred from such activity.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) reported purchasing at least $15,000 worth of stock in Philip Morris International. Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) husband, meanwhile, owned an account whose manager bought and sold about $1,000 worth of stock in Reynolds American while Murray was the top Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
The potential conflicts came to light due to the requirement that lawmakers disclose their own financial positions as well as those of their spouse and dependent children.
A form filed by Murray on June 22, 2017, disclosed that her husband sold between $1,001 and $15,000 of Reynolds American stock on June 15. Disclosure forms do not list the date the stock was purchased.
According to a Murray aide, “the disclosure form shows the liquidation of an account managed by a broker without guidance.” Murray and her husband neither knew about the purchase nor specifically approved it, according to the aide.
As for Hatch, his Philip Morris stock is now in a trust managed by a bank:
Hatch reported that on Oct. 23, 2012, when he was a member of the committee, an account on which he is a joint owner acquired between $15,001 and $50,000 of Philip Morris stock. He reported that in 2013, he owned less than $1,001 of the stock and collected dividends between $201 and $1,000.
On April 3, 2013, Hatch established a trust for some of his assets—an agreement with a bank where the bank manages the stocks and makes the decisions when to buy and sell, and what to do with the profits. The Philip Morris stock went into that trust.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, is not surprised to find such conflicts of interest among senators on the health committee, saying, “They’ve never seen fit to apply the same conflict of interest law to themselves that they apply to everyone else.”
Indeed, two years ago a STAT investigation found that in 2014, about 30 percent of senators and 20 percent of representatives held assets in biomedical and health-care companies, or in funds investing in those industries, including some lawmakers who sat on committees that advanced health-related legislation.