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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Storm over senators' stock sales hinges on public vs. private info

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Feb. 4.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Feb. 4. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

Having the luck or foresight to sell a lot of stock at the right time will not by itself be considered a sin against society.

But the intriguing question for several lawmakers is whether they, or those close to them, acted on information from closed-door coronavirus briefings — even as the official line consisted of high-level happy talk about the microbe having the impact of a seasonal flu outbreak.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) disclosed, as required, that he and his wife on Feb. 13 sold shares of companies worth as much as $1.7 million. The Wall Street Journal calculated that the shares they sold had dropped by at least $250,000 as of last week.

Consider this: The very day that the Burrs sold the stock, the Dow Jones was rallying on news that new coronavirus cases in China had slowed down.

The next day, President Donald Trump told the National Border Patrol Council: “There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus.

"So we don’t know yet; we’re not sure yet. But that’s around the corner.”

Whatever Trump's "theory" or Wall Street's optimism consisted of at that point, it didn't keep other senators from making a move similar to the Burrs'.

These included Georgia Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and the husband of Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

On the defensive, Burr, the Intelligence Committee chairman, asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the sales.

"I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13," Burr said in a statement. "Specifically, I closely followed CNBC's daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time."

The first word of this mess came with reports that Burr warned a small group of well-heeled constituents last month that they should expect dire consequences from coronavirus.

These remarks were more stark than any he delivered in more public forums, NPR reported.

On Feb. 27, when the U.S. had 15 confirmed cases, Trump said opaquely: "It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle. It will disappear … It could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens."

That day, Burr said at a luncheon at the Capitol Hill Club: "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," according to a secret recording of the remarks.

"It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."

Personal stakes aside, the more pertinent question may be why Trump, Burr and others weren't out there leading and preparing everyone for the crisis still to come.

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