Via Financial Times

Two Republican senators offloaded millions of dollars in stock shortly before the US markets crashed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, and his wife, sold up to $1.7m worth of shares on February 13, according to congressional disclosures.

Kelly Loeffler, a former Intercontinental Exchange executive who joined the Senate this year, sold as much as $3.1m of stock over three weeks until February 14, congressional records show.

The transactions were recorded as joint sales with her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman and chief executive of Intercontinental Exchange, which operates the New York Stock Exchange. 

The sales meant both senators avoided significant losses on the disposed stock when US equity markets began crashing after February 20 as the global economy slowed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Senator Kelly Loeffler, R-GA, arrives for the Republican policy luncheon at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC on March 19, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Kelly Loeffler’s share sales began on January 24, the same day the Senate health committee, on which she sits, gave all senators a coronavirus briefing © AFP via Getty Images

Mr Burr’s share disposals, first reported by ProPublica, added to the pressure surrounding the North Carolina senator following criticism that he failed to do enough to warn the public about the looming coronavirus crisis despite knowing how dire the pandemic could be.

Earlier on Thursday, NPR had published a recording of Mr Burr telling attendees at a private dinner on February 27 that the coronavirus was akin to the 1918 influenza virus that killed tens of millions of people across the world.

The senator, who has said he would not run for re-election when his term expires in 2022, said on Twitter the NPR report was a “tabloid-style hit piece” that had “misrepresented” his speech.

Ms Loeffler’s transactions, first reported by The Daily Beast, began on January 24, the same day the Senate health committee, on which she sits, gave all senators a coronavirus briefing from senior health officials from the Trump administration.

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A spokesperson for Mr Burr said the share sales were “personal transactions made several weeks before the US and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak”.

“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,” the spokesperson added.

A spokeswoman for Ms Loeffler did not immediately return a request for comment late on Thursday. A spokesman for Intercontinental Exchange had no immediate comment.

Congressional ethics disclosures provide only a range for the value of share disposals rather than precise figures. Mr Burr’s sales involved 33 transactions with a value of between $628,033 and $1.72m. Ms Loeffler’s ranged from $1.3m to $3.1m across 27 trades.

The share sales Mr Burr disclosed came from accounts in his name or his spouse’s and included stock in companies that have been hit hard by the pandemic. The disclosures show sales of Wyndham Hotel & Resorts shares worth as much as $150,000.

Since the disposals on February 13, Wyndham’s share price has fallen by almost two-thirds.

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The previous week, Mr Burr had sought to reassure the American public about the coronavirus in a op-ed co-authored with another Republican senator. “Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus,” he wrote on February 7.

Ms Loeffler’s disclosures included $250,000 to $500,000 worth of total purchases on February 14 of stock in Oracle, the database software seller, and Citrix, which sells teleconferencing products.

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She has been a staunch supporter of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, reassuring her followers on Twitter this month that “the consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing”.

As chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Mr Burr would have access to regular briefings by US intelligence agencies. On February 27, Reuters reported that the Senate intelligence committee had been receiving daily updates on the coronavirus outbreak.

Both Republicans and Democrats took aim at Mr Burr over the revelations.

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, called on him to resign if he could not provide a sufficient explanation and suggested the senator had betrayed his country “in a time of crisis”.

Joaquin Castro, a Democratic representative on the House intelligence committee, called on Mr Burr to suspend his chairmanship pending an investigation.

“As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know that our committee receives sensitive information, including assessments and projections, before others in Congress and the general public (if ever),” he said on Twitter.

In 2012, the US passed legislation that made it illegal for members of Congress to trade on material non-public information they learned as a result of their official position.

The Stock Act was passed nearly unanimously by the Senate and was opposed by only three senators, including Mr Burr.

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