Senators deny trading on virus info as scrutiny mounts

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Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Facing public outrage, senators in both political parties denied Friday that they exploited advance knowledge when they dumped stocks and other financial holdings before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the economy.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., whose sales of as much as $1.7 million in stocks have come under the most scrutiny, requested an ethics review of his actions in the days before markets dropped in February. But Burr and all the other senators pushed back strongly against suggestions that they used sensitive government information to protect their financial well-being.

The actions by the handful of senators, whose stock transactions are documented in mandatory filings to the Senate, attracted heavy scrutiny as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt everyday life, wiping out jobs and personal wealth. At a moment when political leaders are urging Americans to make shared sacrifices to stop the virus, some questioned whether lawmakers were doing the same.

“It appears that in a time of crisis, these senators chose instead to serve themselves, violating the public trust and abdicating their duty,” said Noah Bookbinder, the director the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a Senate ethics complaint against Burr and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia. "They must be immediately investigated.”

The mandatory disclosures senators must make do not detail specific amounts of stock sales. Instead, they give a range in dollars of the value of each transaction.

Senate records show that 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 plummet and government health officials began to sound alarms about the virus. Several of the stocks were in companies that own hotels.

In a statement Friday, Burr said he had asked for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate, “understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight.” He acknowledged selling the stocks because of the virus.

Burr said he relied “solely on public news reports,” specifically CNBC's daily health and science reporting out of Asia, to make the financial decisions.