POLITICS

Senators Defend Suspect Stock Sales Post-Coronavirus Briefing

Sen. Kelly Loeffler said she had no knowledge of the sales, and Sen. Richard Burr said his decision was based on reports out of Asia amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Two Republican senators defended their actions Friday after coming under fire for selling hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in stock shortly after they received closed-door coronavirus briefings.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), whose stock sales were first reported by The Daily Beast on Thursday, said she had no knowledge of her stock sales, which ran for several weeks starting on Jan. 24, the same day the Senate Health Committee held a private briefing from top officials about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“These were completely discretionary trades at the decision of our investment managers,” the freshman senator said in a CNBC appearance Friday afternoon. “We had no involvement in them, and in fact, I don’t find out about these trades until these reports are compiled at the end of the reporting period.”

Loeffler and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, sold between $1,275,000 and $3.1 million in joint stocks during the period in question, including from companies whose shares have fallen by half since the private briefing. Though she emphasized to CNBC that her third-party advisers also purchased stocks, that accounted for only two of the transactions, one of which was a company that offers teleworking software.

It’s against the law for lawmakers to use non-public information to influence their financial decisions, such as a move to sell stock before a market crash to limit potential losses. 

Loeffler also said on CNBC that when she received the Jan. 24 briefing, the threat the coronavirus posed was not yet entirely clear. 

“I don’t think it was until ... at the start of this month when we started to realize the severity of it,” she said.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also come into question for offloading between  $628,000 and $1.72 million in holdings starting Feb. 13, ProPublica first reported. That was just after he assured the country that the government was prepared to deal with the unfolding health crisis. 

In a statement Friday morning, he said he chose to sell stock based on reports coming out of Asia. But “understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight,” he said, he’s asked to the Senate Ethics Committee to open a review of the matter.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) made stock sales around the same time.

Feinstein said Friday she was not at the Jan. 24 briefing and that all of her assets are in a blind trust.

Inhofe tweeted Friday that in 2018, he instructed his financial advisor to move all his stocks and into mutual funds “to avoid any appearance of controversy.”

Later on Friday, the watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee. The group is calling for immediate investigations into all four senators for possibly violating the STOCK Act of 2012 and insider trading laws. Demand Progress, another watchdog group, called for an investigation into Burr. 

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