Mary Elizabeth Campbell ’21

On March 19th, NPR’s Tim Mak shared a secret recording of Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) disclosing dire warnings about the novel coronavirus to an exclusive group on Capitol Hill last month.

“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr said. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 [Spanish flu] pandemic.”

Burr was speaking at a private luncheon organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a nonpartisan group of North Carolina businesses and organizations where membership costs $500-$10,000. The warnings came at a time when Burr, the GOP, and Trump were still publicly downplaying the coronavirus threat. As head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr received daily briefings on the virus, and despite his private concerns, continued to reassure Americans that the United States was “better prepared than ever” to face COVID-19. The same day as Burr’s private warnings, President Trump publicly described COVID-19 as a seasonal disease that could disappear “like a miracle.”

Simultaneously, a ProPublica investigation into Burr’s financial records revealed that he sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of stock holdings on February 13th, depositing shares in hospitality companies that have since drastically depreciated in value in response to the pandemic. Such findings raise the question of whether private briefings on the outbreak influenced Burr’s actions.

March 19th reports revealed that Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and several other senators also potentially profited from insider knowledge about the risk of COVID-19. The same day that Loeffler attended a private Senate Health Committee briefing from Trump administration officials on the virus, she conducted the first of 29 stock transactions. In the following days, Loeffler dropped millions of dollars in stock and offloaded companies—such as ExxonMobil and Auto Zone—whose value has sharply declined during the past few weeks, while purchasing shares in Citrix teleworking software.

Amid public outcry, Burr faces a lawsuit that alleges he exploited information exclusively available to him as a senator for personal gain. Burr maintains that he based his decisions solely off CNBC public news reports and requested the Senate Ethics Committee open a complete review of him. 

This week, Democrat House Representatives Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-08), Joe Neguse (CO-4), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) are introducing legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from profiting off their positions by trading individual stocks. Currently, the STOCK act of 2012 explicitly bars lawmakers and staff from using nonpublic information for trades and requires regular financial disclosures. The remaining question is whether Washington will decide to open a formal investigation into the suspected senators’ actions.