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Senators unload stock after coronavirus briefings

Lawmakers are prohibited from profiting off non-public information

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sold millions in stock.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sold millions in stock. (CQ Roll Call)

Senators have sold significant amounts of stock before the coronavirus decimated the financial markets and after the Senate received briefings on the pandemic.

Like all Americans, lawmakers are subject to insider trading laws. They are also subject to the 2012 STOCK Act, which prohibits them from buying or selling on the financial markets based on information they receive before the public does because of their position. It also requires the sort of frequent disclosure of financial transactions that enable monitoring of their equity transactions.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hosted an all-senators briefing on COVID-19 with top administration health officials on Jan. 24. Additionally, the Senate Intelligence Committee was apprised on the pandemic dating to around mid-February, according to ProPublica.

Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who serves as an ex-officio member on the Intelligence Committee, sold between $180,000 and $400,000 of his stock holdings on Jan. 27. That includes between $15,000 and $50,000 in Apple Inc. and PayPal Holdings Inc. each. That transaction report includes sales between $50,000 and $100,000 in Intuit Inc., Danaher Corporation and Brookfield Asset Management.

Inhofe also sold between $50,000 and $100,000 in Brookfield Asset Management on Feb. 20, when it was $68 a share. It is now worth $43 a share.

Inhofe released a statement Friday morning saying he has no involvement in his stock portfolio decisions.

“I do not have any involvement in my investment decisions. In December 2018, shortly after becoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I instructed my financial advisor to move me out of all stocks and into mutual funds to avoid any appearance of controversy. My advisor has been doing so faithfully since that time and I am not aware of or consulted about any transactions,” the statement said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband sold between $1 million and $5 million in Allogene Therapeutics Inc. on Feb. 18 at $24 a share. It has since dropped to $20 a share. Her husband also sold between $500,000 and $1 million in the stock on Jan. 31, when it was at $21 for a share. Feinstein is a California Democrat who serves on the Intelligence panel and was previously its chairwoman.

“All of Senator Feinstein’s assets are in a blind trust, as they have been since she came to the Senate,” Tom Mentzer, a spokesperson for Feinstein, said in an email. “She has no involvement in any of her husband’s financial decisions.”

ProPublica reported that current Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, a North Carolina Republican, dumped between $628,000 and $1.72 million in his securities holdings on Feb. 13, after the committee began receiving daily coronavirus briefings. NPR obtained a recording in which Burr offered a grim, private assessment of the grave economic impact the coronavirus would bring on Feb. 27. That analysis was a stark departure from his previous, more favorable public comments on the matter.

On Friday, Burr said he relied on media reports to make his decision but would nevertheless ask the Senate Ethics Committee to look into the matter.

“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time. Understanding the assumption many could in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency,” Burr tweeted.

Another lawmaker, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — who is not on the Intelligence Committee but chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — sold off millions in securities of Pacur LLC, a Wisconsin-based plastics company he used to run before taking office. On March 2, Johnson sold between $5 million and $25 million in the company.

Ben Voelkel, a spokesperson for Johnson, said the transaction was not related to the coronavirus.

“Unequivocally unrelated to the coronavirus. This transaction is the result of an investment by a private firm in Pacur, and Gryphon was excited enough about it that they sent out a press release,” Voelkel said in an email. “Any attempts to make this seem like anything else are just sad partisan smear tactics and proactive spreading of misinformation.”

Meanwhile, The Daily Beast reported that Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia sold over $1 million in stock after the Jan. 24 briefing. She is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

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