On May 14, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., stepped down as the chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee in response to an ongoing FBI investigation into Burr’s stock sales before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burr is currently under investigation for possibly using insider information to make the decision to sell up to $1.72 million in stocks before COVID-19 spread throughout the United States. The FBI served a search warrant for the senator’s cellphone to look for possible evidence of insider trading.
In a May 14 press release, Burr said he was stepping down as the chairperson of this committee until the insider trading investigation is resolved.
“The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way,” Burr said in a statement. “I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions.”
James Cox is a professor at Duke Law School who specializes in corporate and security laws.
In Burr's case, Cox said there is likely enough circumstantial evidence to infer insider trading took place.
“In Mr. Burr’s case, what we know is that he had a briefing in his committee. He had learned that there was much greater likelihood of a pandemic than was generally understood in the public domain,” Cox said. “We know that, not only did he sell stock after that, he sold stock very shortly after that. He didn’t wait weeks to get other information.”
Cox said if Burr were to resign before the end of his term, Gov. Roy Cooper could appoint a new senator to take his place until an election could take place under the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“If he resigns, then the governor has the ability to appoint someone to fill the vacancy until there is a general election to fill the seat,” he said.
Thomas Hazen is a professor at the UNC School of Law who specializes in security laws and insider trading. He said the STOCK act, the 2012 anti-insider trading law Sen. Burr has been accused of breaking, allows for government officials to be held accountable for utilizing insider information to make financial decisions.
“The STOCK act, as I remember it, was in response to some congressional staffers who allegedly were taking advantage of confidential information,” Hazen said. “Congress then passed this act, which would not retroactively apply to those folks, but to make it clear that going forward, that is not permissible.”
Hazen also said Burr’s stepping down from the committee is not necessarily an admission of guilt.
“It seems to me it is more of a statement of wanting to avoid further appearance of impropriety,” Hazen said. “I think if he happens to be exonerated of insider trading, he will be reinstated as chairperson of the committee.”
In mid-April, before Burr stepped down as chairperson of the Intel Committee, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., commented on the accusations in a radio interview.
"Well, regardless of what happens with the investigation, I think Senator Burr owes everybody in North Carolina and the United States an explanation, and we’ll see where the investigation goes,” Tillis said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt.
On May 14, Cal Cunningham, Tillis' Democratic challenger for the upcoming U.S. Senate race, tweeted in response to Burr's decision.
“Sen. Burr stepping down as Intel Committee chairman was a necessary move,” Cunningham tweeted. “He was vetted to receive classified info, and this search warrant, approved at the highest levels of Trump’s DOJ, shows the need for continued investigation.”
A spokesperson from the Cal Cunningham campaign told The Daily Tar Heel that a crucial part of Cunningham’s campaign is fighting behavior like insider trading, which the spokesperson said exhibits a level of corruption in Washington D.C.
“Senator Burr’s behavior is the very corruption Cal intends to fight in Washington, and Senator Tillis’ inability to stand up to his own party is exactly why North Carolinians are ready for new leadership,” the spokesperson said. “North Carolina deserves an independent voice in Washington, not someone who puts personal or political interests ahead of our wellbeing.”
The investigation into Burr’s stock sales is ongoing. U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R- K.Y., named Sen. Marco Rubio, R- F.L., as acting chairperson of the Senate Intel Committee until the Burr investigation is resolved.
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