The United States Justice Department has started to probe a series of stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of the sharp market downturn that stemmed from the spread of coronavirus, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The inquiry, which is still in its early stages and being done in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission, has so far included outreach from the FBI to at least one lawmaker, Senator Richard Burr, seeking information about the trades, according to one of the sources.
What’s this about? Public scrutiny of the lawmakers’ market activity has centered on whether members of Congress sought to profit from the information they obtained in non-public briefings about the virus epidemic.
Burr, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has previously said that he relied only on public news reports as he decided to sell between $628,000 and $1.7 million in stocks on February 13. Earlier this month, he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the trades given “the assumption many could make in hindsight,” he said at the time.
What does the law say? Congress passed the Stock Act in 2012, which made it illegal for lawmakers to use inside information for financial benefit.
Under insider trading laws, prosecutors would need to prove the lawmakers traded based on material non-public information they received in violation of a duty to keep it confidential.
Is there any evidence of wrongdoing? There’s no indication that any of the sales, including Burr’s, broke any laws or ran afoul of Senate rules. But the sales have come under fire after senators received closed-door briefings about the virus over the past several weeks — before the market began trending downward. It is routine for the FBI and SEC to review stock trades when there is public question about their propriety.
In a statement Sunday to CNN, Alice Fisher, a lawyer for Burr, said that the senator “welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate.”
Burr’s committee has received periodic briefings on coronavirus as the outbreak has spread, but the committee did not receive briefings on the virus the week of Burr’s stock sales, another source familiar with the matter told CNN earlier this month.
Burr’s sales represent a sizable share of his portfolio of stocks, according to his latest Senate financial disclosure documents filed in May 2019, although exact numbers aren’t possible because lawmakers only report trades as a range of dollar values.
Is anyone else involved? Several other senators from both parties also sold and bought stock ahead of the market downturn that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, although it’s not clear who else the Justice Department is looking at and no other senator said they have been contacted by law enforcement. Burr is the only lawmaker to have asked for an Ethics Committee review.
GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and her husband sold 27 stocks valued between $1.275 million and $3.1 million from January 24 through February 14, according to Senate records.
They also purchased three stocks at a value of $450,000 to $1 million, including shares in Citrix, a software company that’s gained approximately 15% in value since Loeffler and her husband bought the stock last month.
Loeffler denied having any knowledge of the stock sales, saying she uses a third-party financial adviser and did not learn of the trades until later. Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.
A Loeffler spokesperson confirmed Loeffler has not been contacted by the FBI and said the senator “has acted in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the law.”
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