Following assurances to the public that the U.S. government was ready to hand the coronavirus, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) unloaded a significant portion of his stocks back in February. In the report, which first appeared on the online news site ProPublica, Burr sold off between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13.
As the powerful head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr has access to classified data regarding prospective threats to the United States. Prior to him selling off his stocks, Burr and the rest of the committee were receiving daily briefings about the status of the coronavirus outbreak.
A week after Burr sold the stocks, the stock market started its descent into bear market territory. The decline has since given the stock market its worse losses since the 1987 market crash.
Saying one thing in public and another in private
On February 7, Fox News ran an op-ed from Burr and fellow Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), where they acknowledged the concerns of the American public during a time when cases in China were still on the rise. They wrote:
“Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration.”
On Thursday, however, NPR obtained a secret recording from Feb. 27 where the Burr was seen in a VIP group luncheon at the Capitol Hill Club where he gave a much grimmer preview of the coronavirus’s economic impact than what he originally told the American public.
“There’s one thing I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history,” the senator can be heard saying in the recording. ”It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
The luncheon in question was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a club for business organizations in Burr’s home state of North Carolina. Members of the club are charged up to $10,000 for membership. For this price, the club promises “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector.”
Burr responds, accuses NPR of “malpractice”
Following NPR‘s reveal, Burr took to Twitter where he posted a lengthy thread to defend his decision to talk to the club. Here he called the report a “tabloid-style hit piece” and accused it of “journalistic malpractice.”
In a tabloid-style hit piece today, NPR knowingly and irresponsibly misrepresented a speech I gave last month about the coronavirus threat.
Let me set the record straight. 1/
— Richard Burr (@SenatorBurr) March 19, 2020
“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,” stated Burr’s spokesperson 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.”
Congressional news outlet Roll Call estimated Burr’s worth at about $1.7 million in 2018, which makes him not a particularly wealthy member of the Senate. This indicates that his February sales significantly shaped his fortune and, more importantly, spared him from some of the pains now faced by many Americans.
In 2012, Burr was one of only three senators who opposed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, a bill that explicitly barred lawmakers and their staff from using nonpublic information for stock market trades and required regular disclosure of those trades. Burr argued that then-current insider trading laws already applied to members of Congress.
Among the stocks that Burr sold were those from companies that are most vulnerable to economic slowdown from the outbreak. This includes up to $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a chain that has lost two-thirds of its value during the outbreak. Burr also sold up to $100,000 of shares of economy hospitality chain Extended Stay America. Shares of the latter have since dropped to less than half of what they were worth when Burr sold them.