Richard Burr, some other senators sold lots of stock as virus fears started

NORTH CAROLINA (ABC News) — Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., sold as much as $1.7 million in stocks just before the market dropped in February amid fears about the coronavirus outbreak, Senate records show.

Several other senators sold big stock stakes around the same time, Senate records reveal.

The documents show that Burr and his wife sold between roughly $600,000 and $1.7 million in 33 separate transactions in late January and mid-February, just before the market began to fall and as government health officials began to issue stark warnings about the effects of the virus. Several of the stocks were in companies that own hotels.

Burr’s stock sales were first reported by ProPublica and The Center for Responsive Politics. Most of them came on Feb. 13, just before Burr made a speech in his home state in which he predicted severe consequences from the virus, including closed schools and cutbacks in company travel, according to audio obtained by National Public Radio and released Thursday.

NPR said Burr told a small North Carolina audience the virus was “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history” and “probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

Burr’s remarks were much more dire than remarks he had made publicly, and came as President Trump was still downplaying the severity of the virus.

There’s no indication that Burr had any inside information as he sold the stocks and issued the private warnings.

It’s illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks based on information the public doesn’t have that they get through their positions as lawmakers. Burr was among only three senators who voted against that measure in 2012.

The Associated Press cites a person familiar with the matter as saying the intelligence panel didn’t have any briefings on the pandemic the week when most of the stocks were sold. The person declined to be identified to discuss confidential committee activity.

But the Reuters news service reports that the panel was getting daily briefings about the coronavirus outbreak at around that time.

A spokesperson for the senator told CBS News in a statement 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. As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.” The spokesperson declined to be identified in order to share the senator’s thinking.

Before the media reports about his stock sales surfaced, Burr shot back at NPR in a series of tweets Thursday, calling the NPR story “a tabloid-style hit piece” and saying NPR “knowingly and irresponsibly misrepresented a speech I gave last month about the coronavirus threat.”

Burr tweeted that Americans were already being warned about the effects of the virus when he made the speech to the North Carolina State Society.

“The message I shared with my constituents is the one public health officials urged all of us to heed as coronavirus spread increased,” Burr wrote. “Be prepared.”

Burr said that, contrary to NPR’s portrayal, the speech was “publicly advertised and widely attended.”

Burr wasn’t the only senator who sold stocks just before the steep decline due to the global pandemic.

Loeffler, Feinstein, Inhofe transactions

Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler  and her husband sold millions of dollars worth of stock in late January and early February as senators began to get briefings on the virus, also according to Senate records. In the weeks that followed, Loeffler urged her constituents to have faith in the Trump administration’s efforts to prepare the nation.

The Daily Beast first reported that Loeffler sold the stock “on Jan. 24, the very day that her committee, the Senate Health Committee, hosted a private, all-senators briefing from administration officials.”

Loeffler tweeted Thursday night that she was “informed of these purchases and sales on February 16, 2020 — three weeks after they were made.” She also said, “This is a ridiculous and baseless attack. I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”

She’s married to Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange.

Loeffler, a Republican, is the Senate’s newest member. She was sworn in on January 6 to replace Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired. She was appointed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and is up for re-election this year.

Pennsylvania congressman Brendan Boyle, a Democrat, tweeted that he’s “officially referring” the Burr and Loeffler cases to the Securities and Exchange Commission for investigation.

In addition to Burr and Loeffler, California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein sold $1.5 million to $6 million worth of shares in late and mid-February, Senate records show.

And Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe sold as much as $400,000 in equities on January 27, disclosure reports show.

Word of the stock sales quickly prompted reaction. Among others, conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson called on Burr to resign and face prosecution for insider trading if he can’t offer “an honest explanation” of his transactions.

And former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro tweeted, “Senators Burr and Loeffler should be investigated by authorities and the Senate Ethics Committee. If the evidence suggests they engaged in insider trading, they should be charged and stand trial.”

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