President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming COVID czar, Jeffrey Zients, is facing new scrutiny over his corporate ties — particularly a two-year stint on Facebook’s board of directors. But the Biden transition team confirmed to The Verge that Zients liquidated his Facebook stock earlier this year and will retain no equity when he officially begins his White House role.
Zients joined the Facebook board in May 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal but declined to seek reelection to the board when his term ended in 2020. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show he was compensated with $100,000 in cash and just over $300,000 in stock awards for his work chairing the board’s Audit & Risk Oversight Committee, which met 13 times in 2019. Crucially, the last of his restricted stock units were vested in May 2020, leaving him able to entirely liquidate his financial ties to the company.
Zients’ departure from the Facebook board was abrupt and came amid rumors of a split with the company’s management. “Mr. Zients was generally aligned with Kenneth Chenault, [who] resigned from the company’s board following disagreements with founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook officials,” wrote The Wall Street Journal at the time. “They differed over governance at the company and its policies around political discourse.”
Zients’ role as the incoming White House’s COVID-19 coordinator doesn’t directly affect Facebook, but with the company facing unprecedented federal scrutiny and an impending antitrust action from regulators, tech activist groups are particularly sensitive to any connections between Facebook and the Biden White House. In September, a coalition of antitrust groups called on the transition to forswear any Facebook executives or registered lobbyists tied to the company from White House appointments.
On Thursday, Accountable Tech co-founder Jesse Lehrich called Zients a “talented problem-solver” but said Facebook’s role in spreading anti-vaccine misinformation could not be ignored.
“Facebook must be held accountable for amplifying misinformation that has undermined our pandemic response and sown baseless distrust in vaccines,” Lehrich said. “In order to guard against conflicts of interest, Mr. Zients should immediately divest of the significant equity he earned in Facebook from his service on the Board and commit to hiring an online misinformation expert to handle his team’s engagement with major social media platforms.”
Zients previously served in a number of economic policy roles in the Obama administration — most notably, as director of the National Economic Council and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.