The Less-Redacted Richard Burr

Senator Richard Burr

Senator Richard Burr
Thanks to Judge Beryl Howell, we now know more about what was in the FBI search warrant served on Senator Richard Burr than we knew one year ago. That’s because on August 29, Howell ordered the Justice Department to release a less-redacted version of FBI agent Brandon Merriman’s warrant which allowed the agency to seize Burr’s cellphone. And what did Agent Merriman conclude after examining Burr’s phone and reviewing other information associated with the stock trade investigation? This statement was in his report: 

“I believe probable cause exists that Senator Burr used material, non-public information regarding the impact that COVID-19 would have on the economy, and that he gained that information by virtue of his position as a member of Congress.”

So why in heaven’s name wasn’t Burr formally charged with insider trading? Because federal investigators chose to accept Burr’s lame (and multiple) explanations of his sudden wealth. Burr’s initial statement in March of 2020 was that his decision to suddenly dump stocks was based on “CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus.” But later when the FBI questioned him, Burr changed his story. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, we now know about his revised tale from the newly unredacted search warrant.

“Senator Burr explained that he was uncomfortable with a lot of things in the market…Burr discussed the fact that there has been a long bull market and that it was due for a correction…he also said that the surge of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic party’s nomination process was a risk to the market.” 

So, I guess Richard Burr had a crystal ball that no one else had, AND he was afraid that his investments would be devalued if Bernie Sanders snagged the Democratic nomination. Or maybe he just happened to watch CNBC’s Asian-based reporters after receiving classified briefings on COVID. If you believe any of that, then I have some swamp land I’d like to sell you. A simple review of the timeline suggests that Merriman’s conclusion about Burr’s stock trades is right on the money (pardon the expression). 

In January 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci briefed Burr about the seriousness of the spreading COVID-19 virus. Then, according to Reuters, three days later Burr, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, began receiving daily COVID updates, and on January 31, he received a series of voicemails and text messages, which the Journal reported came from “an individual whose identity remains redacted.” Four hours later Burr, his wife, and her brother began to sell off stocks. During one eleven-minute period on February 13, the Burrs engaged in a flurry of stock trades which, by some estimates, netted them over a million dollars. Many of the stocks Burr unloaded were from the hospitality industry which he knew from private briefings would likely tank in a pandemic. It is important to note that just four hours after the Burrs completed their trading, U.S. Secretary of Health Alex Azar declared a national public health emergency because of COVID.     

Burr’s suspicious stock trades should come as no surprise to us. In fact, we should have known this was coming as far back as 2012 when he was one of only two senators who voted against the Stock Act. That act makes it illegal for any member of Congress to profit financially from proprietary information. Nevertheless, violations of the Stock Act are difficult to prove, as we have learned from Burr’s pandemic plunder. Richard Burr’s propensity for meteoric wealth building is also nothing new. Based on a report from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, when Burr entered Congress in 1994 his net worth was under $190,000. But, according to OpenSecrets.org, by 2018 Burr was worth over $7.4 million dollars. That’s an increase of 3,600 percent at a time when the income of average Americans rose by less than one percent. 

Over the years there have been proposals to augment the Stock Act. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has lobbied unsuccessfully to ban legislators from even trading stocks while in office. And earlier this year, a number of Democratic congressmen and senators attempted in vain to pass legislation that would have required their colleagues to put their portfolios in a blind trust. But if guys like Burr can slither out of violating the Stock Act, then they could do the same with any subsequent laws.

I can’t help but think of Martha Stewart, who in 2001, made a stock trade based on information from her broker’s assistant that the price of ImClone shares would probably decline because its CEO was about to retire. Martha dumped her ImClone stocks in order to avoid a loss that would have amounted to $45,000. For that, Stewart was convicted of obstruction, spent five months in federal prison, was given two years of supervised release, and had to wear an ankle monitor for five months. Moreover, her transactions had no bearing on the health of millions of Americans. The recently unredacted FBI warrants on Richard Burr is a hollow victory for transparency because the soon-to-be-retired Senator wasn’t held to account for the fortune he allegedly made from insider trading. Martha Stewart must be wondering why.
 
 

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