Sen. Warren on Former FDA Commissioner's Pfizer Appointment: "Smacks of Corruption"

headshot of Scott Gottlieb

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Only days after it was announced that Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was joining Pfizer’s board of directors, presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) called for him to resign from the position.

Gottlieb joins Pfizer’s board as the company pushes further into the oncology market. Pfizer recently acquired Array BioPharma as well as restructured into three separate business units, established medicines, consumer healthcare and innovative medicines.

Before being chosen FDA Commissioner by the Trump administration, Gottlieb was a consultant to a number of big pharma companies, including Novo Nordisk, GlaxoSmithKline and Daiichi Sankyo. He also served on the boards of Gradalis, CombiMatrix Corp. and Aptiv Solutions.

Gottlieb left the FDA at the end of April and returned to his position at New Enterprise Associates as a special partner. In addition, Gottlieb is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. As a Pfizer director, he will receive a cash retainer of about $150,000, plus stock options.

Warren’s argument is that joining Pfizer so close after leaving the agent “smacks of corruption.” In a July 1 letter to Gottlieb, she said, “This kind of revolving door influence-peddling smacks of corruption, and makes the American people rightly cynical and distrustful about whether high-level Trump people rightly cynical and distrustful about whether high-level Trump administration officials are working for them, or for their future corporate employees.”

For his part, Gottlieb in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” today said, “I worked with some large drugmakers before I came into the agency. I made no bones about the fact that I had expertise in life sciences and I made my living trying to promote innovation in this sector prior to coming to the agency.”

Recently, in an unlikely pairing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) agreed, at least on Twitter, to work on a bill that would have a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists. This seems highly improbable to gain much traction in the House or the Senate and wouldn’t apply in Gottlieb’s case either way. The proposal came after a report by Public Citizens indicating that out of 44 members of Congress who retired or lost their seats in the most recent mid-term election, 26 went on to get jobs at lobbying firms.

It's extremely common for federal lawmakers to be hired by lobbying companies, partly because they know how laws work and who to talk to—they also provide a higher level of access.

And although Sen. Warren may have an issue with Gottlieb serving on a company’s board, in fact, as controversial as it is, there are no laws against sitting members of Congress from serving on corporate boards or buying and selling stock in industries they’re supposed to be overseeing. In their case, they can’t receive any compensation. On the other hand, this exception isn’t extended to top-level executive branch officials.

In the case of FDA commissioners, STAT notes that every FDA commissioner in the past 38 years has joined a pharmaceutical company board of directors after leaving the agency except David Kessler, who was commissioner from 1990 to 1997. Robert Califf and Peggy Hamburg, the FDA commissioners preceding Gottlieb, took directorships at Cytokinetics and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, respectively.

Gottlieb indicated that he would respond to Warren’s letter “promptly, directly, and privately,” adding, “While I was at FDA, I had a productive relationship with Sen. Warren, working together to advance shared public health goals.”

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