Two Republican U.S. senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, are at the center of a political scandal.
Actually, make that two scandals.
The first, better-known one involves allegations that the senators sold stock near the peak of the market after they received a Jan. 24 private briefing about the potential severity of the coronavirus crisis.
(Stock sales by two other senators — Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma — have raised similar questions, but Feinstein said her stocks are in a blind trust, and Inhofe said he did not attend the briefing and was not involved in the trades. In addition, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said his investment adviser bought stock in a German diagnostic company.)
Burr handled his own transaction and sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings, according to ProPublica, which broke the story. Loeffler began selling the day of the briefing, and overall sold between $1.275 million to $3.1 million of stock she jointly owned with her husband, who happens to be the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. While the vast majority of Loeffler’s portfolio activity represented sales, there were two purchases, including of Citrix, a tech firm that enables remote work.
Whether Burr and Loeffler did anything illegal requires more investigation. But such action “really destroys public confidence,” Richard W. Painter, a professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer. Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration and ran for Senate in 2018, said members of Congress should be required to have their investments in mutual funds, not individual stocks.
Both Burr and Loeffler have vigorously defended their actions. Loeffler claims that her stock sales were executed by an independent third party. And in a statement, Burr said that he “relied solely on public news reports” to guide his trading, specifically citing CNBC coverage from Asia. Still, Burr asked the chairman of Senate Ethics Committee “to open a complete review the matter with full transparency.”
Full transparency would be the last phrase to describe how Barr and Loeffler communicated about COVID-19, and therein lies the less publicized but perhaps more damning disgrace. Both Burr and Loeffler, as members of the Senate Health Committee, heard from experts who likely leveled with the senators about the potential of a pandemic. But both downplayed it.
On Feb. 7, Burr and fellow Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee wrote in a Fox News commentary that although Americans were “rightfully concerned” about COVID-19, “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 Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration.”
Similarly, just weeks after rushing to unload her stock, Loeffler seemed to talk up the market when she tweeted: “The consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe.”
Lawmakers campaign on serving “the people.” When they serve themselves instead, there have to be consequences, whether it comes from ethics investigations or voters.