Burr sold stocks before pandemic tanked market

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina sold between $628,033 and $1.72 million of his stock holdings last month, days after he praised the nation's preparedness to combat coronavirus.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina sold between $628,033 and $1.72 million of his stock holdings last month, days after he praised the nation's preparedness to combat coronavirus.

Two weeks after the stock sales, the republican senator warned a group of businesspeople in Washington about the potentially dire impact the virus could have on the U.S.

Burr reported 33 separate sales on Feb. 13 in companies ranging from CSX rail and 3M manufacturing to Wyndham Hotels, CenturyLink and Bank of New York Mellon, according to a financial disclosure form.

Six days earlier, he and Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee penned an op-ed for Fox News outlining the steps the government had available to combat coronavirus.

"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 work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration," the two senators wrote in the piece. "The work of Congress and the administration has allowed U.S. public health officials to move swiftly and decisively in the last few weeks."

A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline, and it has lost about 30 percent of its value since then.

"Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. 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," a spokesperson said. "He supported Congress’ immediate efforts to provide $7.8 billion for response efforts and this week’s bipartisan bill to provide relief for American business and small families."

Burr is chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, which has been briefed on the coronavirus outbreak as it's spread.

Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro said Thursday that Burr should resign.

Burr's outlook wasn't so bright on Feb. 27, when he spoke to members of the Tar Heel Circle, a club for businesses and organizations in North Carolina that are charged up to $10,000 for membership, at the Capitol City Club in Washington.

NPR obtained a recording of the meeting, in which Burr warned about the dangers the virus posed to the U.S. at the same time that President Donald Trump was downplaying the risk of the virus.

In his remarks, Burr warned attendees they might have to alter their travel, schools could close and the military would get involved in the response inside the U.S.

"There's one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," he said, according to the recording. "It is probably more akin to the 1918 [flu] pandemic."

Burr continued: "There will be, I'm sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, 'Let's close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home.'"

Burr disputed NPR's account of the meeting on Twitter Thursday, saying he was talking with members of the North Carolina State Society, which he called a "civic institution" that he speaks to every year.

On the same day as Burr's speech, Trump was downplaying the coronavirus risk, one day after he had named Vice President Mike Pence to lead a coronavirus task force.

"It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear," he said. "From our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens. Nobody really knows."

"When you have 15 people, and the 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done," Trump said on Feb. 26.

Within two weeks, Trump had put restrictions on travel to Europe, and he subsequently declared the virus a national emergency.

Burr has an extensive background in pandemic preparedness – he helped author the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which was first enacted in 2006 and was renewed last year – and his spokeswoman told WRAL News that he has been outspoken about his concerns in public forums as well as private.

WRAL couldn't find any public statements with such specific warnings about the potential severity of the coronavirus.

Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said in a statement that the senator has been talking about the importance of public health preparedness for years.

"Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years. His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack," Carroll said. "Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus. At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort."


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