Elizabeth Warren Calls on Former F.D.A. Chief to Quit Pfizer Board

Senator Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday called on Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, to resign from the board of Pfizer, saying his decision to join one of the country’s leading pharmaceutical companies “smacks of corruption.”

Ms. Warren, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a public letter to Dr. Gottlieb that the revolving door between government and industry “makes the American people rightly cynical and distrustful about whether high-level Trump administration officials are working for them, or for their future corporate employers.”

Pfizer is one of the nation’s largest drug makers, with blockbuster products like Lipitor and billions of dollars in sales dependent on F.D.A. decisions.

In announcing Dr. Gottlieb’s election to its board — less than three months after he left the agency — Pfizer said: “Scott’s expertise in health care, public policy and the industry will be an asset to our company and enable our shareholders to continue to benefit from a board representing a balance of experience, competencies and perspectives.”

What Pfizer didn’t say was that Dr. Gottlieb brings with him credibility on public health issues that would be exceedingly valuable at a time when the pharmaceutical industry is under fire from all sides for escalating drug prices.

Senator Warren pointed out that Dr. Gottlieb’s compensation for the Pfizer board membership was worth more than $300,000 in cash and stock.

“This will certainly be a lucrative move for you,” she wrote.

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Federal ethics rules permit former senior officials, such as Dr. Gottlieb, to join corporate boards, but there is a one-year cooling off period before they are allowed to lobby or otherwise represent any third party before the agency, which in this case includes not only the F.D.A. but the Health and Human Services Department.

Asked to respond to the criticism, Dr. Gottlieb said only, “While I was at F.D.A., I had a productive relationship with Senator Warren, working together to advance shared public health goals. I respect the senator, and I will respond to her letter promptly, directly, and privately.”

In addition to taking a board seat at Pfizer, Dr. Gottlieb has resumed his previous job as a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He is also a special partner in New Enterprise Associates, the venture capital firm where he worked before landing the F.D.A. job. At that time, he had investments in 20 health care companies that the agency regulates, all of which he sold.

Senator Warren has previously criticized Pfizer for what she described as reneging on a promise not to raise prices on many prescription drugs, and Tuesday voiced disappointment with Dr. Gottlieb’s decision to join the company’s board.

“I ask that you reconsider this decision,” she wrote. “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: for example, you worked to reduce rates of youth tobacco use, and took steps to increase the FDA’s transparency.”

Senator Warren noted that Dr. Gottlieb is the second high-level Trump administration official to join the board of a corporation with interests related to their work in the administration. She also took issue with John F. Kelly, the former Secretary of Homeland Security and White House chief of staff.

“John Kelly helped lead the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policy that led to forcibly separating thousands of migrant children from their parents,” she said Tuesday. “Shortly after leaving government, General Kelly joined the board of Caliburn, Inc., the parent company of Comprehensive Health Services, which runs the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida.”

The revolving door between government and industry is common, despite frequent admonishments from ethicists. The F.D.A. is no exception. Former commissioners and top agency officials have taken jobs at businesses and law firms that represented industries the agency regulated.

Senator Warren said she is pushing for anti-corruption legislation, which would prohibit companies like Pfizer from hiring senior government officials for at least four years after they left public service.

The proposal would also bar members of Congress from owning stock, and establish other new ethics rules. Representatives Pramila Jayapal, of Washington, and John Sarbanes, of Maryland, have introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

“I intend to keep working to make that plan law,” Senator Warren wrote. “In the interim, however, you should rectify your mistake and immediately resign from your position as a Pfizer board member.”

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