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Sen. Burr: I sold off stocks because of TV reports, not inside info about coronavirus

The North Carolina Republican and three other senators who sold off stocks after coronavirus briefings denied any wrongdoing.
Capitol Hill security briefing on developments with Iran after attacks by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq,
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., arrives for a briefing at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020.Al Drago / Reuters file

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., under fire for selling off much of his stocks ahead of the coronavirus-caused downturn in the market, said Friday he made the move because of television reports — not inside information obtained in his role as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman.

Burr also sent a letter to the chair of the Senate Ethics Committee asking for a "full and expedited investigation of these sales."

"I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC's daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time," Burr said in a statement. "Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency."

The statement comes after ProPublica reported, and NBC News confirmed, that Burr had dumped up to $1.7 million of his stocks in mid-February. That came after his committee had received a number of briefings and intelligence reports in January and February that included nonpublic information about the growing coronavirus pandemic, Senate aides have told NBC News. The intelligence remains classified — it's unclear what warnings were given and exactly when.

Burr co-wrote an op-ed article for Fox News on Feb. 7 saying that the country "is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus." NPR reported Thursday that 20 days later, he told a group of well-connected constituents at a luncheon that the virus "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," he said then, according to a record of his remarks obtained by NPR.

The amount of stock that was sold was likely most of Burr's holdings — Roll Call estimated his net worth at $1.7 million in 2018. The market started falling by more than 30 percent a week after Burr's sale.

The other Republican senator from North Carolina, Thom Tillis, tweeted, "Given the circumstances, Senator Burr owes North Carolinians an explanation. His self-referral to the Ethics Committee for their review is appropriate, there needs to be a professional and bipartisan inquiry into this matter, which the Ethics Committee can provide."

A number of other senators who'd sold off stocks after coronavirus briefings also denied wrongdoing Friday.

Disclosure records reviewed by NBC News show that three other senators sold major holdings around the same time, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and James Inhofe, R-Okla.

Asked about the stock sales Friday, President Donald Trump singled out Feinstein, a Democrat, and then said he knew all the senators involved and "I find them to be honorable people."

Feinstein and her husband shed up to $6 million worth of stock in Allogene Therapeutics, a biotech company, between the end of January and Feb. 18, disclosure records show.

A Feinstein spokesman told NBC News on Friday that she "did not sell any stock. The transactions you're referencing were made by her spouse. All of Senator Feinstein's assets are in a blind trust, as they have been since she came to the Senate. She has no involvement in any of her husband's financial decisions."

In an interview withCNBC Friday, Loeffler denied using insider information, and said the trades were carried out by "very third-party" advisers.

"I have no involvement in these decisions. I don't have conversations with them about any of this, and so this is a very third-party relationship that many people are familiar with,” Loeffler said.

"I don't find out about these trades" until the disclosure forms are filed, she added.

Loeffler, whose husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, sold off up to $3.1 million in stock between Jan. 24 and Feb. 14, federal disclosure forms first reported by the Daily Beast show. The date the sales started, the Daily Beast noted, was the same day her committee, the Senate Health Committee, hosted a private, all-senators briefing on the coronavirus.

Loeffler's disclosure forms also show she purchased stock in a teleconferencing company.

Inhofe sold off about $400,000 worth of stock on Jan. 27, three days after the meeting. He noted that he did not attend the Health Committee briefing, and said in a statement Friday that “I do not have any involvement in my investment decisions."

"In December 2018, shortly after becoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I instructed my financial advisor to move me out of all stocks and into mutual funds to avoid any appearance of controversy. My advisor has been doing so faithfully since that time and I am not aware of or consulted about any transactions," Inhofe said.

NBC News also reviewed periodic transaction reports filed by members of the House Intelligence Committee, and the health subcommittee of the House committee on energy and commerce, for January and February.

No lawmaker reported making the sort of large-scale divestiture of his or her portfolio that Burr did.

Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who serves on the health subcommittee, reported 17 sales of stock in a variety of major U.S. companies on Feb. 13 valued at as much as $440,000. His form included a hand-written note that said, in part: “These JP Morgan Trust transactions are managed w/o control or direction by me.”

Upton spokesman Josh Paciorek told NBC News the “sales were made by the trust without Fred’s direction or input.”

Upton is one of the richest members of Congress, with a net worth in 2019 estimated at $11 million.

Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat who serves on both the House Intelligence Committee and the House health subcommittee, reported purchasing between $1 and $15,000 worth of stock on Feb. 27 in a Danish biotech firm called Qiagen.

That was a few days before the company announced it was being acquired, sending the stock up from $36.47 on Feb. 27 to $41.45 on March 3. The company makes RNA extraction kits that are crucial to coronavirus testing, and had already begun selling its own coronavirus test. The stock has since dropped and is hovering around $37 a share, but it has significantly outperformed the market.

Welch’s spokesman did not respond to emails and a phone message.

The non-profit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said the Burr and the Loeffler transactions were particularly troubling, and filed ethics complaints against both of them.

"The job of a U.S. senator is to serve the American people," the group's executive director, Noah Bookbinder, said. "It appears that in a time of crisis, these senators chose instead to serve themselves, violating the public trust and abdicating their duty. They must be immediately investigated."