US senator sold $1.7M in stock right before stock market dive

After a coronavirus briefing in January, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr sold $1.7M in stocks and sent private warnings to his wealthy donors, before telling the public of the danger. 

Alex Brandon/AP
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaks with reporters on Feb. 4, 2020 in Washington. The senator sold as much as $1.7 million in stock before fears about the coronavirus epidemic triggered an increasingly volatile market swinging between record highs and lows.

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 epidemic.

Senate records show that Senator Burr and his wife sold between roughly $600,000 and $1.7 million in more than 30 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.

The stock sales were first reported by ProPublica and The Center for Responsive Politics. Most of them came on Feb. 13, just before Senator Burr made a speech in Washington, D.C., 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.

Senator Burr told the small North Carolina State Society audience that 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.”

Senator Burr’s remarks were much more dire than remarks he had made earlier in the month for Fox News in an op-ed he coauthored with Sen. Lamar Alexander R-Tenn., assuring Americans that the United States was prepared to meet the public threat of 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. The work of Congress and the administration has allowed U.S. public health officials to move swiftly and decisively in the last few weeks. ... All of these steps are part of the response framework Congress has put in place to ensure we are prepared for disease outbreaks and other public health threats.” 

Despite the timing, there is no indication that Senator Burr had any inside information as he sold his stocks and issued private warnings to his wealthy donors. The intelligence panel did not have any briefings on the pandemic the week when most of the stocks were sold, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person declined to be identified to discuss confidential committee activity.

Senator Burr responded to these reports on Thursday by tweeting 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,” Senator Burr tweeted. “Be prepared.”

Senator Burr sent out the tweets before the reports of his stock sales came out. A spokesperson for the senator said in a statement that Senator Burr “has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy” and supports congressional efforts to help the economy. The spokesperson declined to be identified in order to share the senator’s thinking.

The North Carolina senator was not the only lawmaker to sell off stocks just before the steep decline due to the global pandemic. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a new senator who is up for re-election this year, sold off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in late January, as senators began to get briefings on the virus, also according to Senate records.

In the weeks that followed, Senator Loeffler urged her constituents to have faith in the Trump administration’s efforts to prepare the nation.

“@realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe,” Senator Loeffler tweeted Feb. 27.

The Daily Beast first reported that Senator Loeffler dropped the stock in late January. The senator is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Additional material from Business Insider was used in this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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