U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is facing two potential federal probes into stock sales made a week before the stock market began its sharp coronavirus-related decline Feb. 20.
CNN reported late Sunday that U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission officials are investigating Burr’s stock transactions, according to two people familiar with the matter.
U.S. Senate financial-disclosure documents show Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, and his wife, Brooke, sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of their stock holdings in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13. The publication Roll Call listed his net worth at $1.7 million as of 2018.
CNN reported the two federal agencies have contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of their initial steps. CNN reported “it is routine for the FBI and SEC to review stock trades when there is public question about their propriety.”
CNN said the investigations may involve an additional five U.S. senators who also conducted stock sales before Feb. 20. They include Republican senators Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, David Perdue of Georgia, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
Some of those senators attended a joint Jan. 24 Senate Health and Foreign Relations committee briefing on coronavirus that included the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become the health care public face for the pandemic.
On March 20, Burr requested the U.S. Senate Ethics committee investigate the couple’s stock transactions.
Burr has hired attorney Alice Fisher of Latham & Watkins to represent him in the potential investigations.
Fisher released a statement late Sunday in response to the CNN report:
“The law is clear that any American — including a senator — may participate in the stock market based on public information, as Senator Burr did,” Fisher said.
“When this issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review and he will cooperate with that review as well as any other appropriate inquiry.
“Senator Burr welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate.”
SEC Chairman Jay Clayton told cable business channel CNBC Monday that “anyone who is privy to private information about a company or about markets needs to be cautious about how they use that private information.
“That’s fundamental to our securities laws and that applies to government employees, public officials, etc, and the Stock Act codifies that.”
According to a secret recording obtained by NPR, Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told members of the well-connected private Tar Heel Circle on Feb. 27 that the novel coronavirus would have dire effects on the U.S. economy and population. He likened it to the 1918 flu pandemic that left millions dead.
The Feb. 13 stock sales by Burr and his wife occurred six days after Burr co-wrote an op-ed piece saying America had tools in place to combat COVID-19.
Burr warned the private group on the same day that President Donald Trump publicly downplayed the virus.
Mitch Kokai, a senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, called the Justice and SEC probes “an interesting development, but I doubt that it changes the calculus for Sen. Burr.”
“As the latest national news report suggests, there is no indication that he broke any laws or violated any Senate rules. Burr continues to say that he welcomes a thorough review of the facts.
“As long as he is maintaining that stance, it’s unlikely that the announcement of a new investigation will make much difference.”
Calls for Burr to resign
There have been calls for Burr to resign.
Among them is outspoken U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of President Trump’s fiercest defenders. On Twitter, Gaetz has repeatedly questioned Burr’s decision no to tell the public about his concerns about COVID-19.
Gaetz tweeted March 20: “Crazy thought: instead of watching CNBC & then deciding to ‘get yours’ and sell off hotel stock, why not ‘go on’ TV and share your insights with all Americans?”
On Monday, Gaetz tweeted, “I think Americans should get to choose which they’d prefer: $1,200 or stock tips from @SenatorBurr.”