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ProPublica: Sen. Burr Dumped Stock After Calming Public About Coronavirus

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On this program yesterday, NPR's Tim Mak brought us the exclusive story about Republican Senator Richard Burr and the fact that the senator had warned a private audience three weeks ago about how damaging the coronavirus pandemic could be. In that address, he compared it to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

That message from the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee was much stronger than what most Americans were hearing publicly at the time. And now, a new twist in this story. There are reports that Senator Burr and one of his Senate colleagues improperly unloaded stock before the pandemic tanked the market. NPR's Tim Mak is here again. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: So as you reported, Senator Burr was putting out this very concerning message back in late February. Now there are these reports that he was taking action to protect his own financial well-being. Explain. What has happened here?

MAK: There's a difference between what he was saying publicly and what he was saying privately. So in February, Senator Burr was assuring the public in a joint op-ed that the United States was, quote, "better prepared than ever" to face threats like coronavirus. But we know he had private concerns that he didn't express to the general population. And ProPublica and OpenSecrets, jumping off of NPR's investigation, dug into the Senate's financial disclosures and wrote stories Thursday evening suggesting that Senator Burr may have improperly profited by privately dumping stocks while telling the public that the nation was ready for the crisis to come.

ProPublica reported that Burr sold off, quote, "a significant percentage of his stocks," somewhere between $628,000 and $1.7 million worth on a single day, February 13. And what he dumped was notable, up to a quarter-million dollars' worth of shares in two major hospitality chains that have lost between half and two-thirds of their value since. Now, Burr's office said in a statement to NPR that the transactions happened weeks before the recent market volatility.

MARTIN: So other lawmakers were getting briefed on the likely impact of the pandemic, obviously. And these reports include at least one other lawmaker who dumped stock as well. Who's that?

MAK: Well, so senators are required within 45 days of selling a stock to submit a public report of that transaction. And these reports are public. So - and anyone can go read them. And after that initial set of reporting, many others decided to go do just that. Thursday evening was kind of a flurry of reporters and the general public combing through pages and pages of disclosures. Now, senators, like anyone else, do sell stocks. It's not indicative of wrongdoing to do so.

That said, The Daily Beast found that Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia sold off seven figures' worth of stock after a private senator's briefing on the coronavirus. She also bought up to a quarter-million dollars of stock in a company that offers teleworking software. Her office told NPR that this was, quote, "a ridiculous and baseless attack" and that her investment decisions are made by third-party advisors.

MARTIN: So it sounds like no one's really happy with this. It's getting - Burr anyway is getting bipartisan criticism, huh?

MAK: Well, that's right. I mean, a lot of folks are worried about their 401(k)s. And to hear that lawmakers might have benefited from inside information about coronavirus is a pretty unifying force. Here's what conservative FOX commentator Tucker Carlson said last evening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUCKER CARLSON: But he didn't warn the public. He didn't even disavow an op-ed he'd written just 10 days before, claiming America was, quote, "better prepared than ever" for coronavirus. He didn't do any of those things. Instead, what did he do? He dumped his shares in hotel stocks so he wouldn't lose money. And then he stayed silent.

MAK: Progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also joined these calls for Burr's resignation. It's a rare bipartisan joining of hands.

MARTIN: Indeed. NPR's Tim Mak, we appreciate your reporting. Thank you.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.