FBI seizes Senate Intel chairman Richard Burr's cellphone amid probe of coronavirus stock sales

Key Points
  • FBI agents seized the cellphone of Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr on Wednesday, NBC News confirmed.
  • The search warrant for Burr's phone represents a new phase in a federal probe of Burr's stock sales during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • After years of work, Burr is still finalizing his committee's bipartisan report on the investigation of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.
Sen. Richard Burr steps down as Intel Committee chair day after Feds seize cell phone

WASHINGTON — Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr turned over his cellphone to FBI agents in response to a search warrant served on him as part of a federal investigation of stock sales he  made early in the coronavirus outbreak, NBC News confirmed on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for Burr declined to comment on the search warrant when contacted by CNBC, and a Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email. The warrant was first reported by the Los Angeles Times. A senior law enforcement official confirmed to NBC that the FBI obtained the cellphone.

Burr will step down as chairman of the intelligence panel while the probe is ongoing, effective Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday. 

The seizure of Burr's phone on Wednesday represents a new phase in a federal investigation into Burr's sale on Feb. 13 of stock worth $630,000 to $1.7 million, a sizable portion of the senator's portfolio.

The one-day sale involved 33 individual trades, and occurred just a day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a historic all-time closing high of 29,551.42. 

One week later, on Feb. 20 markets began a steep slide over fears that the coronavirus would paralyze the global economy. In the weeks following Burr's sale, the Dow lost 30% of its value, but it has since recovered some of those losses.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr was given access to classified intelligence reports in January and early February that contained dire warnings about the coronavirus, according to The Washington Post, which reported on the intelligence assessments.

After years of work, Burr is still finalizing his committee's bipartisan report on the investigation of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

New questions about Burr's stock sales arose last week, when ProPublica reported that on the very day that Burr sold his stocks, Feb. 13, Burr's brother-in-law, Trump appointee Gerald Fauth, also sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of stock.

Fauth is a former transportation consultant, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017 to a seat on the three-member National Mediation Board, a federal agency that helps facilitate labor relations for the transportation industry.

Burr's attorney, Alice Fisher, told ProPublica that Burr "participated in the stock market based on public information," and that "he did not coordinate his decision to trade on Feb. 13 with Mr. Fauth."

According to the LA Times, federal agents served an earlier warrant on Apple for information about Burr's iCloud account. They then used that information as evidence to obtain a search warrant from a judge for Burr's phone.

It was unclear whether Fauth had also been served with a warrant. CNBC called the number for Fauth's consulting firm, but there was no answer. 

Members of Congress are prohibited by law from using nonpublic information they obtain through their official positions in order to personally profit off the stock market. The STOCK Act that codified this ban was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, after passing the Senate in a 96-3 vote.

Burr was one of only three senators who voted against the STOCK Act.