WASHINGTON — A powerful Republican senator who has come under fire for selling stocks after receiving a private briefing about the novel coronavirus said he has asked for an ethics review into the matter.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks in mid-February after he and other senators received a briefing from top government health officials about the coronavirus, ProPublica reported on Thursday. As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr was also receiving briefings on the coronavirus from the country’s spy agencies. And in late February, Burr privately delivered starker warnings about the possible widespread effects of the coronavirus than he had publicly, according to a recording obtained by NPR. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has rocked businesses and caused stock values to plummet.
Burr said in a statement Friday morning that he "relied solely on public news reports" — specifically, "CNBC's daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus" — to inform his decision to sell the dozens of stocks.
“Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter will full transparency,” Burr said.
The Senate Ethics Committee did not immediately return a request for comment.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, Burr's colleague from North Carolina who is up for reelection this year, put out a statement Friday saying Burr "owes North Carolinians an explanation."
Burr is among several senators whose financial activity following an all-senators briefing in late January is now being scrutinized. Under the STOCK Act, members of Congress are banned from using nonpublic information they receive as lawmakers to inform their stock activity. Burr was one of only three senators who voted against the law in 2012, arguing that insider trading laws already apply to members of Congress.
The STOCK Act also forced senators to file regular financial disclosures, which is how the transactions by Burr and others were discovered.
Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who was appointed to the Senate in early January, sold dozens of stocks in recent months. On Jan. 24, the day of the all-senators briefing, Loeffler and her husband — the chair of the New York Stock Exchange — began selling millions in stocks, the Daily Beast reported. Loeffler also purchased between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stocks in Citrix, a technology company that offers, among other things, software that allows people to telework from home.
Loeffler tweeted after midnight Friday that it was a “ridiculous and baseless attack,” saying that “multiple third-party advisors” make investment decisions for her and her husband.
On Friday afternoon, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington wrote to the leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee requesting an investigation into both Burr and Loeffler. "The well-timed stock sales of Sens. Burr and Loeffler warrant an investigation into whether they violated the STOCK Act, insider trading laws, and ethics rules," the group wrote.
Another powerful Republican, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks days after the all-senators briefing as well, but said Friday morning that he didn’t attend the briefing and does “not have any involvement in [his] investment decisions.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, reported selling stocks in a biotechnology company in late January, but said Friday she’s “held all assets in a blind trust of which I have no control” and wasn’t at the Jan. 24 briefing, either. The company’s stock value also hasn’t been as badly hit by the coronavirus outbreak as others.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sold millions in stocks earlier this month, but for a company his family owns that’s privately held. Johnson, who used to run the plastics company, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the sale had “nothing to do with the coronavirus” and had been in the works for years.