Burr to leave top Senate Intelligence post amid probe of stock sales

Posted May 14, 2020 12:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 15, 2020 8:35 a.m. EDT

— U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is stepping down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee as a federal probe of his financial activities in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic heats up.

The Justice Department searched the North Carolina Republican's Washington, D.C., home on Wednesday and seized his cellphone.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Thursday that Burr "contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation.

"We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day [Friday]," McConnell said.

"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."

Burr unloaded up to $1.7 million in publicly traded stocks – most of his portfolio – in 33 sales on Feb. 13, weeks before the stock market crashed because of the global pandemic.

The sales contrasted with some of Burr's public comments on the outbreak, including a Feb. 7 op-ed he co-authored for Fox News, detailing the federal government's preparedness.

The moves prompted some to question whether Burr had inside information about the pandemic through his Senate Intelligence role. The committee received a Jan. 24 briefing on the growing coronavirus outbreak from administration officials.

Members of Congress cannot legally use information they get as part of their service for financial gain.

Burr has said that he made his financial decisions using only publicly available information and maintains that he's done nothing wrong. Still, he asked for the Senate Ethics committee to investigate his actions.

"From the outset, Senator Burr has been focused on an appropriate and thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate," Alice Fisher, an attorney for Burr, said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is among a number of people who have said that Burr needs to be more upfront about the stock sales.

"Senator Burr does owe all of us an explanation, and this is clear evidence that an investigation’s underway. We just need to see where the investigation leads," Tillis said in a Charlotte radio interview Thursday.

"I don’t think he really has provided a proper explanation of really what he was taking in and why the decision was made when it was made," Bob Phillips, executive director of good-government group Common Cause North Carolina, said Thursday. "It’s such a large amount of stock to be selling at a time."

Democrats want more than an explanation, saying Burr should resign his seat.

"North Carolinians of all backgrounds and all beliefs should be outraged that one of our sitting U.S. senators appears to have used privileged information to try to profit off a public health crisis," North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said. "For the FBI to execute the search warrant in the way they did means they have probable cause to believe a crime was committed, and to seize the phone of a sitting United States senator is a stunning escalation of this investigation."

North Carolina Republican Party officials didn't respond to a request for comment.

Burr previously announced that he wouldn't seek election to a fourth six-year term in 2022.