(CBS News) — FBI agents have seized the cell phone of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a ranking Republican from North Carolina, as part of, a U.S. official tells CBS News. Burr and his wife sold between $600,000 and $1.7 million in stocks over 30 transactions from late January through mid-February, before the stock market plunged and as warnings about a pandemic grew more severe.
“We’ll decline to comment,” Burr communications director Caitlin Carroll said late Wednesday. The Los Angeles Times first reported the seizure of Burr’s phone.
Several of the stocks sold were in companies that own hotels, an industry that has been decimated by the coronavirus. The bulk of Burr’s stock sales took place on February 13, just before he made a speech predicting extreme measures would have to be taken to check the spread of the virus, including closing schools and cutting company travel, according to audio obtained by National Public Radio.
At the time, President Trump was suggesting there was— there were under 50 cases in the U.S., and he was speculating that the heat in April might just “kill this kind of virus.”
A week earlier, on February 7, Burr coauthored an opinion piece with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander that offered reassuring words for Americans concerned about the coronavirus.
“Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration,” he and Alexander wrote.
No indications have emerged publicly to suggest Burr had inside information when he sold the stocks and issued the private warnings in his speech in mid-February.
A spokesperson told CBS News in March that Burr, “filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak.”
It’s illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks based on information the public doesn’t have that they receive through their positions as lawmakers. Burr was among only three senators who voted against the legislation banning such trading in 2012.
Burr has defended the transactions and said he “relied solely on public news reports” to guide his decision “regarding the sale of stocks on February 13.” He has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to open a review of the matter.