Investments by Trump’s HHS pick raise questions over conflict of interest
WASHINGTON — The public spotlight may be on President-elect Donald Trump’s conflicts of interests, but his nominee to be secretary of health and human services, Rep. Tom Price, could have conflicts of his own.
Price’s wealth pales in comparison with Trump’s. The orthopedic surgeon, first elected to Congress from Georgia in 2004, is ranked as only the 50th richest member of Congress by the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call.
But his stock portfolio includes investments in pharmaceutical, medical device, and health insurance companies, the heart of the industries he would be overseeing as secretary.
Federal ethics rules do not require that Price automatically divest himself of stock. As part of the nomination process, his holdings will be reviewed by the White House counsel’s office, the Office of Government Ethics, and the ethics division at HHS.
Experts say the outcome of that process depends on whether Price owns stock in companies whose fate he could directly affect.
Jan Baran, an expert in federal election law, said conflicts would have to involve specific decisions he might make that could benefit himself or his family.
“It depends on whether he’s likely to encounter, as secretary of HHS, any decision that might affect any of those types of companies he owns,” Baran said. “Even if selling it is not seen as something that’s required, he can establish a so-called blind trust, and put all their assets into a blind trust. That would insulate him from future conflicts of interest.”
Neither Price nor Trump’s transition team responded to requests for comment.
Lawmakers are required to report their holdings in broad categories, although some give specific amounts.
Among Price’s holdings are some in Innate Immunotherapeutics, Ltd., a biomedical company in which another lawmaker is a major shareholder. According to his financial disclosure statements, on Aug. 31 he bought between $50,001 and $100,000 worth of stock the firm.
Representative Chris Collins, a New York Republican, is a director of the company, which develops drugs to treat multiple sclerosis. He lists assets in the firm worth between $5,000,001 and $25 million. Price also purchased a smaller amount of stock in Innate Immunotherapeutics in 2015.
Collins is also a member of Trump’s transition team.
In March, Price invested between $1,001 and $15,000 in Amgen; Eli Lilly and Co.; Pfizer; Biogen; Bristol-Myers Squibb; Zimmer Biomet, a medical device company; Aetna; and Athenahealth. Also that month, Price sold the same amounts in Gilead, Abbott Laboratories, and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Some of these same companies donated to Price’s campaign, During the current 2015-16 election cycle, for example, health care political action committees contributed $414,493 to his campaign committee. Donors included Abbot Laboratories, Pfizer, and Zimmer Biomet PACs.
At least one lawmaker, Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), who opposes Price’s nomination for other reasons, including his goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act, has called on Price to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest by divesting and putting his assets in a blind trust.
“I hope that Mr. Price will hold himself to a higher ethical standard than his new boss,” DeLauro said. “Mr. Price must set his business dealings aside and work for the American people, not the pharmaceutical industry.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit group, has called for any potential Cabinet picks to take such measures.
“We would encourage any potential Cabinet pick to divest potential conflicts stock, just so the American public does not have to worry whether it’s a conflict,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for CREW.
This article is reproduced with permission from STAT. It was first published on Dec. 2, 2016. Find the original story here.