By David Morgan and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Republican senators faced calls on Friday that they resign over reports they sold substantial amounts of stock ahead of the global coronavirus-induced market meltdown after receiving closed-door briefings on the outbreak.
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Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr sold up to $1.7 million worth of stock on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions after offering public assurances the government was ready to battle the virus. His financial filings were first reported by ProPublica.
Senator Kelly Loeffler also sold millions of dollars in shares in the weeks after lawmakers were first briefed on the virus, according to public filings.
Media reports about Burr and Loeffler, who have denied wrongdoing, prompted calls for them to leave office if they were found to have broken the law from people as disparate as a progressive Democratic lawmaker and a conservative commentator.
As Intelligence Committee chairman, Burr has been receiving regular classified updates on the outbreak.
Burr made public comments in line with Republican President Donald Trump’s early assurances that the country could easily handle the situation. But the senator told a private luncheon in Washington two weeks after the stock sale that the coronavirus was much more aggressive in its transmission "than anything that we have seen in recent history," according to a recording obtained by National Public Radio.
The comments predated Wall Street’s massive sell-off.
In a statement Friday, Burr said he relied only on public news reports to guide his decision on the Feb. 13 stock sale.
"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.
Senate Ethics Committee Chairman James Lankford declined to comment on reports of the sales by the senators.
‘RIDICULOUS AND BASELESS’
Loeffler sold $1.28 million to $3.1 million in stocks from Jan. 24 through mid-February, as first reported by The Daily Beast. The report said the sales began the day her health committee hosted a private coronavirus briefing for senators.
Loeffler, who has a fortune with an estimated worth of $500 million, wrote on Twitter she was informed of the transactions three weeks after they occurred.
"This is a ridiculous and baseless attack," she wrote, adding that she and her husband are not involved in investment decisions for her portfolio.
Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Trump said the senators should "possibly" be investigated.
"They said they did nothing wrong. I find them, the whole group, very honorable people," he told reporters.
OWING AN EXPLANATION
Critics on both ends of the political spectrum called on Burr and Loeffler to consider resigning or at least explain the sales.
"Senator Burr owes North Carolinians an explanation," fellow North Carolinian and Republican Senator Thom Tillis wrote on Twitter. "His self-referral to the Ethics Committee for their review is appropriate, there needs to be a professional and bipartisan inquiry into this matter."
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, "It is stomach-churning that the first thoughts these Senators had to a dire & classified #COVID briefing was how to profit off this crisis." Ocasio-Cortez is a prominent member of the party’s progressive wing.
Conservative Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson told viewers on Thursday: "Maybe there is an honest explanation for what (Burr) did. If there is, he should share it with the rest of us immediately. Otherwise, he must resign from the Senate and face prosecution for insider trading."
Republican Senator James Inhofe and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein also sold stock, according to filings, but both said they were not involved in the transactions.
Inhofe denied a New York Times report he had sold shares after attending a January briefing for senators. "I do not have any involvement in my investment decisions," he said in a statement.
Feinstein said in a statement her money is in a blind trust and she had not attended the January briefing.
Burr, in his third six-year Senate term, has said he will not seek re-election in 2022. Loeffler is running for re-election to complete the remaining two years of a term she was appointed to.
The controversy swirled as senators from both parties met with Trump administration officials to try to devise a rescue plan for an economy reeling from the coronavirus, after Republicans made a $1 trillion opening bid.
The package includes checks of up to $1,200 each for many Americans, and hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for small businesses and industries. It also would allow Americans to file their taxes by July 15 instead of the normal April 15.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed the Senate would not adjourn until it had passed a bill and sent it to the House of Representatives. Administration officials and congressional leaders hope to send legislation for Trump to sign early next week.
Democrats said they were ready to talk but were also wary, noting they were not involved in drafting the plan.
"Senator McConnell’s bill is not pro-worker at all. It puts corporations ahead of people. We need workers first," Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey, David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis