On Thursday afternoon, reports showed that Senate Intelligence chair Richard Burr sold off a huge amount of stock in early February, after senators received a private briefing on the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. The information relayed to Burr is exactly the kind of information that senators are not supposed to use for the personal advantage, but it was only after his money was safely pocketed that Burr went on to share the warning with a group of high-dollar Republican donors.
But after an evening of shifting stock records, reporters and analysts have determined that Burr was definitely not alone. Six senators made significant sales in the weeks immediately following the closed-door briefing, but before the seriousness of the coronavirus threat was clear to the nation. At least two of those appear to be part of longer transactions that had been in the works for some time. However, one of senators stands out for two reasons: First, Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler dumped millions in stock in a cascade of transactions that started on the same day that Loeffler took part in the private briefing; Second … Loeffler’s husband is Jeffrey Sprecher, who just happens to be the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.
Though it was hidden from the public, it’s possible to get a good sense of what was explained to Burr and Loeffler by looking at what Burr told his fellow Republican bigwigs — after his own money was safely tucked away. Speaking in February, weeks after that initial briefing but before the explosion of cases in the United States or the huge tumble of the markets, Burr warned the Republican group that novel coronavirus is “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," and told them frankly that it is “probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
But weeks before he allowed this dire language to slip out, even to the well-heeled Tar Heel Circle members, Burr had already sold off not one or two, but twenty-nine different stocks that made up what may be the majority of his net worth. In doing so, Burr safely put away his money near the market’s all time high, just before fears related to the coronavirus sent the markets into a record fall.
The idea that Burr might engage in insider trading when his own wealth is on the line isn’t exactly helped by this story from 2012 showing that Burr was one of just three senators who opposed a bill that prevents members of Congress “from using nonpublic information for insider trading.” At the time, Burr was offended — terribly, terribly offended — that the Senate would even take up such a bill. “We're doing this at a time when we should be talking about the economy and jobs … Why do (Americans) think so little of us?” As it turns out, Americans had very good reasons to think little of Burr.
However, if Burr’s actions were bad enough to have even Republicans—and even Fox News hosts—calling on him to resign, Loeffler’s may be worse. As The Daily Beast reports, the Senate’s newest member didn’t even wait a day before translating what she heard in that private January 24 briefing into a series of transactions. Starting with a sale on that day, Loeffler and her husband made 29 transactions over the next two weeks, selling off millions of stock in industries across the board.
Loeffler is claiming that these were all managed transactions, that the fact that they drew millions from a market that was still moving upward at the time was coincidence, and that none of it had anything to do with her private, insider knowledge that the CDC director and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci provided in an all-senators briefing.
That might be easier to believe except for the fact that of those 29 transactions, two were actually purchases. One of those two was a sizable investment in Citrix, a company that specializes in providing online meetings and other tools for remote workers. In other words, one of the few stocks that seems like a good purchase in the face of a threat that was about to send huge parts of the nation into lockdown. Exactly the kind of transaction that someone who was trading on insider information unavailable to the public might make.
Exactly the kind of transaction that might come if someone violated the law against senators using their insider information to boost their own wealth, even as most people in the nation were about to see 401Ks and life savings evaporate. At least her other purchase didn’t seem to be either Charmin … or Smith & Wesson.