Burr Seeks Ethics Investigation After Uproar Over Stock Sales

WASHINGTON — Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said on Friday that he had asked the Senate Ethics Committee to scrutinize sales he made of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock just before the coronavirus ravaged the stock market, in an attempt to clear himself of accusations that he traded on nonpublic information.

Under mounting political pressure to explain the sales or resign, Mr. Burr did not deny in a new statement on Friday that he had made the mid-February sales out of fears about the impact of the coronavirus.

But he said the decision “relied solely on public news reports” on CNBC out of Asia, where the virus was spreading rapidly at the time. The sales, he said, were not based on special information he was privy to as a senator or the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Understanding the assumption many could make 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,” Mr. Burr said.

The six-person Ethics Committee is led by Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, and typically conducts its work in secrecy. So although Mr. Burr asked for a review with “full transparency” it is unlikely that the panel will make its proceedings public unless or until it issues a report.

The matter may be difficult to untangle. As a member of both the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee and the Intelligence Committee, Mr. Burr is frequently briefed by national security and health officials on threats to the United States, including potential pandemics like the novel coronavirus. In the case of the Intelligence Committee, much of that information may be classified.

Legislation called the STOCK Act enacted in 2012 prohibits lawmakers and staff from using nonpublic information to buy or sell stocks, with both criminal and civil penalties for violations. But the law left questions about how “nonpublic” is defined.

“Members of Congress and an employee of Congress may not use nonpublic information derived from such person’s position as a Member of Congress or employee of Congress or gained from the performance of such person’s official responsibilities as a means for making a private profit,” the law says.

Matthew T. Sanderson, a lawyer who advises members of Congress and candidates and who is a Republican, said the actions by Mr. Burr at a minimum need to be examined.

“I don’t know where there is a violation, but it is certainly the type of facts that motivated the passage of the STOCK Act in the first place, and they are certainly the type of facts that warrant an investigation,” Mr. Sanderson said.

Mr. Burr has not disputed that he received confidential information during his briefings or that he directed the trades, Mr. Sanderson said.

Publicly available disclosures show that Mr. Burr and his wife sold a total of 33 different stocks on Feb. 13, worth a collective $628,000 to $1.7 million. The sales included as much as $150,000 in stock in two hotel chains, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Extended Stay America. Both companies have seen their stock value decline rapidly in recent weeks.

The sales came at a time when President Trump and members of Mr. Burr’s party were playing down the virus’s threat and accusing Democrats of overreacting. Mr. Burr seems to have taken a more cautious approach, warning Americans and his constituents about a possible pandemic, but also reassuring them that the government was well equipped to keep them safe.

The political pressure on Mr. Burr began on Thursday when news reports about the sales first surfaced. The Democratic Party in Mr. Burr’s home state said on Friday that he had violated the public’s trust.

“While leaders stood up and North Carolinians prepared for the worst, Senator Richard Burr used his position and access to highly sensitive information to profit by selling stock just a week before the market crashed due to a deadly virus sweeping our nation,” the state party said.

It also called for a Justice Department investigation to determine whether the senator had violated the law.

Some conservative commentators, including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, have made similar demands.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, declined to answer questions about Mr. Burr in the Capitol on Friday.

Several other senators also placed substantial trades in the weeks before the virus began to directly affect Americans and the markets here. But Mr. Burr’s sales were larger as a proportion of his net worth.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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