Both lawmakers have denied any wrongdoing, despite the optics

By Ashley Boucher Sean Neumann
March 20, 2020 02:00 PM
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Reports this week show at least two Republican lawmakers dumped millions of dollars in stock after a senators-only briefing about the novel coronavirus in late January — though they dispute that link.

The briefing was more than a month before the Trump administration began shifting its tone about the seriousness of the virus and financial markets began to convulse because of uncertainty around the outbreak.

According to reports by ProPublica, The Daily Beast and The New York Times, Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler sold off at least hundreds of thousands in stock in the weeks following the senators-only briefing on Jan. 24 about the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness.

(ProPublica and the Times reported on Burr; Loeffler’s stock sale was reported by The Daily Beast.)

Both lawmakers have denied any wrongdoing, despite the optics.

Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his stock holdings in 33 different transactions in mid-February, according to ProPublica.

According to the The Daily Beast, Loeffler sold millions in stock after attending the January briefing about virus. She began off-loading stocks the same day as the meeting held by the Senate Health Committee, of which she’s a member.

ProPublica noted that because of Burr’s position on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he would have access to classified information about “threats to America’s security,” including the growing threat of the new coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19.

Loeffler and her husband made their first sale on the same day as the meeting, of between $50,001 and $100,000 in stock of Resideo Technologies, according to The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast reported that Loeffler and her husband made 28 more stock transactions through mid-February; all but two of those transactions were sales.

The stock market started to spiral in late February, about two weeks after Burr’s Feb. 13 sales.

The hashtag #BurrMustResign began trending on Twitter on Thursday, as some called for the North Carolina senator’s ouster following the news reports.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson told his audience Thursday night that Burr betrayed his country by withholding information about the severity of COVID-19.

“He had inside information about what could happen to our country, which is now happening, but he didn’t warn the public,” Carlson said. “He didn’t give a primetime address. He didn’t go on television to sound the alarm.”

The Fox News anchor added: “There is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis and that appears to be what happened.”

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Sen. Kelly Loeffler
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A spokesperson from Burr’s office directed PEOPLE to a statement from the senator, while Burr sent a letter Friday to the Senate Ethics Committee requesting a full investigation into his own financial decisions.

“While I relied solely on public reporting to guide my decision to sell the stock, it is my belief that an independent review is warranted to ensure full and complete transparency,” he wrote.

“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” the North Carolina senator’s spokesperson said in a statement to ProPublica. “As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”

Loeffler’s office did not respond to PEOPLE’s request but called the news reports “a ridiculous and baseless attack” on Twitter on Thursday and she appeared Friday morning on Fox News to deny the allegations.

The junior senator from Georgia also faced criticism from one of her own party colleagues in her home state, Rep. Doug Collins, who is running against her in the upcoming election.

“People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain?” Collins tweeted. “I’m sickened just thinking about it.”

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for both Burr’s and Loeffler’s resignation on Thursday night.

“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 tweeted. “They didn’t mobilize to help families, or prep response. They dumped stock. Sen. Loeffler needs to resign, too.”

Questions were also raised about two other senators who made significant financial sell-offs since the Jan. 24 senators’ meeting, though both of those are murkier than the accounts about Burr and Loeffler (which the latter two deny).

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Republican James Inhofe sold stock in late January, according to the Times.

Feinstein and her husband sold between $1.5 million to $6 million worth of stock in Allogene Therapeutics, a California biotech company, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 18, according to the Times. A disclosure report also shows Inhofe sold up to $400,000 worth of stock on Feb. 27, amid the first of the market’s precipitous declines.

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Feinstein responded to reports about her stock sale in a statement on Twitter, which a spokesperson tells PEOPLE “addresses her lack of involvement pretty clearly.”

“During my Senate career I’ve held all assets in a blind trust of which I have no control,” the senator tweeted Friday. “Reports that I sold any assets are incorrect, as are reports that I was at a January 24 briefing on coronavirus, which I was unable to attend.”

Inhofe also said he wasn’t in attendance at the Jan. 24 briefing and was instead meeting with “pro-life kids from Oklahoma here for the March for Life and the new nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania.”

The Oklahoma senator tweeted Friday that allegations he leveraged exclusive information to strategically sell off stocks ahead of the market crash were “completely baseless and 100 percent false.”

“I think the Senator’s statement is really clear and demonstrates that not only was he not at the briefing in question, but he also doesn’t have any involvement in his investment decisions,” an Inhofe spokesperson told PEOPLE on Friday.

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Concern about the coronavirus escalated in the U.S. last week, as health and government officials urged as many Americans as possible to practice “social distancing” — working from home, skipping large events — to slow the rate of new infections as researchers work on possible treatments and a vaccine and hospitals brace to care for new patients

There have been more than 15,600 confirmed cases of the virus and 202 deaths reported in the U.S. as of Friday afternoon.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.