WASHINGTON — A senior Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee is facing backlash Thursday night after news reports revealed he sold up to $1.6 million in stocks -- many of them in key industries later crippled by the fallout from novel coronavirus -- on Feb. 13, before the markets began to tumble.
The report about stock sales by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina appeared first in the online news site ProPublica. It is based on disclosure filings that members of Congress make when they are engaging in significant financial transactions.
Burr has filed such reports periodically, though not in recent years, and past reports show both purchases and sale of stocks. The report he filed Feb. 27 shows that he sold off scores of holdings, including in the hotel and travel industries, all on Feb. 13. He reported no stock purchases.
"If Senator Burr had information suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak could be much more serious than commonly understood and used that information to protect his own fortune, all while reassuring the public that the government was prepared for the disease, that would be a shocking violation of the public trust," said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "His actions should be investigated right away."
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted, "As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know that our committee receives sensitive information, including assessments and projections, before others in Congress and the general public (if ever). Senator Burr should suspend his chairmanship pending investigation."
Burr’s staff would not respond to questions about why he elected to make the sales that day, whether the decision was his, or if he learned anything during intelligence briefings that drove the decision.
"Senator 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," said Caitlin Carroll, Burr's spokeswoman. "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 report brought added attention because it came following earlier reports about a Feb. 27 speech Burr made at a private social club warning of the coming havoc brought by coronavirus. Burr had made more tepid remarks about the threat in public.
In an op-ed published by Fox News on Feb. 7, Burr wrote: "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."
His words were more alarming at the Capitol Hill Club.
"There's one thing that I can tell you about this," Burr is heard saying on a recording obtained by NPR. "It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."
Burr responded on Twitter to the NPR report, saying it mischaracterized the meeting where his remarks occurred. "The message I shared with my constituents is the one public health officials urged all of us to heed as coronavirus spread increased: Be prepared," Burr wrote.
Burr said the NPR report "raised concerns that Americans weren’t warned about the significant steps we may have to take to stop the coronavirus threat. That’s not true."
A law passed in 2012 makes it illegal for members of Congress to engage in stock trades based on non-public information they are privy to by virtue of their public posts. But legal experts said it remains unclear if Burr’s actions were the result of briefings he received from intelligence officials or based on publicly available information, or if the trades were executed for some other reason.