WASHINGTON — Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., is facing questions about his decision to sell between $630,000 and $1.7 million worth of stock one week before global financial markets began a historic slide in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A second Republican senator, Georgia's Kelly Loeffler, also sold large amounts of stock in late January and early February, when U.S. markets were hitting all-time highs.
Both Burr and Loeffler have received non-public information about the global spread of coronavirus from Executive Branch officials, who have been briefing senators regularly since at least January.
In a statement Friday, Burr said his decision to off-load his stock was based "solely on public news reports," including those from CNBC.
"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," Burr said.
Members of Congress are prohibited by law from using non-public information they obtain through their official positions in order to personally profit off the stock market.
There is no evidence that either Burr or Loeffler received specific, material, non-public information and then used it to trade specific stocks, which would qualify as insider trading.
On Feb. 13, one week before U.S. stocks began sliding, Burr sold more than half a million dollars worth of shares in a single day. The sales amounted to 33 individual transactions.
A spokeswoman for Burr confirmed the sales to ProPublica, but did not directly address whether Burr's decision to sell was informed by non-public information he received as a senator. CNBC asked her this question directly on Thursday, but she has yet to respond.
Loeffler recently disclosed a string of stock sales that began on Jan. 24, the same day Loeffler's Senate committee hosted a private, senators-only briefing about the spread of the new coronavirus.
Over the next three weeks, Loeffler and her husband Jeffrey Sprecher sold shares worth between $1.25 million and $3.1 million, according to her disclosure records. Sprecher is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and chairman and CEO of its holding company International Exchange.
Reached for comment, Loeffler's spokeswoman called the Daily Beast story "a ridiculous and baseless attack." She said the senator "does not make investment decisions for her portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without her or her husband's knowledge or involvement."
But as millions of Americans are rendered jobless due to coronavirus restrictions on daily life, the question of how much public officials knew in advance about the pandemic's potential spread is becoming an important one.
For Burr, the focus on his stock trades could hardly come at a worse time. On Thursday morning, NPR released a secret recording of Burr, in which he can be heard telling a room full of VIPs that the coronavirus is "much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history."
Burr made the remarks on Feb. 27 during a private lunch in Washington for North Carolina business leaders. He also said that the outbreak would result in school closures, a well-informed prediction, albeit one that few Americans were preparing for three weeks ago.
"There will be, I'm sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, 'Let's close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home,'" Burr can be heard saying.
Burr's private comments at the lunch were more specific and pessimistic than some of his public remarks about the outbreak. On Feb. 7, a week before he sold his stocks, Burr penned an op-ed in which he reassured readers that the Trump administration was well prepared to handle an outbreak.
In a series of tweets Thursday night, Burr disputed some of the details in the NPR report, and called it "a tabloid-style hit piece."
Loeffler, a freshman senator, is not as visible as Burr is. Still, she too projected an air of calm about the global pandemic until very recently.
@KLoeffler: Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness. Here's the truth: @realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe.