The Justice Department is closing its insider-trading investigation into three US senators but will continue probing a series of stock trades that Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina made, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported Tuesday.
According to the reports, DOJ prosecutors told defense attorneys for Sens. Kelly Loeffler, Jim Inhoffe, and Dianne Feinstein that they did not find sufficient evidence showing that the lawmakers violated the law while making in a series of stock transactions in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.
All three lawmakers, as well as Burr, made their stock trades in January and February, while Congress was being briefed on the threat of the coronavirus. The stock market began plunging shortly after as a result of the outbreak.
Burr, meanwhile, appears to still be under scrutiny. Last week, he stepped down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after it surfaced that the FBI had seized a cell phone belonging to him.
"Senator 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," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow."
In a Thursday statement, Burr confirmed that he would step away from chairing the committee "until this investigation is resolved," saying, "The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way. I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions."
The senator unloaded up to $1.72 million in stocks on February 13, days after reassuring the public that the Trump administration was well prepared to handle the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Burr and other members of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee have access to the federal government's most classified and sensitive information.
According to Reuters, Burr's committee was getting daily briefings on the coronavirus threat around the time he dumped his stock.
A source familiar with the matter previously told CNN that the committee did not get a briefing the week Burr sold his stocks.
In a February 7 op-ed article for Fox News, Burr and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee acknowledged that Americans were "rightfully concerned about the coronavirus" at a time when the number of cases in China was still skyrocketing.
The senators added, however, that "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."
According to Burr's financial-disclosure form, he started dumping stock on February 13, six days after the op-ed article was published. He made 33 separate transactions, unloading anywhere from $1,001 to $100,000 worth of stocks in different companies.
Burr defended his actions the day after ProPublica first reported on the stock sales, saying in a statement: "I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC's daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time."
He added: "Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight, however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency."
"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. It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic," Burr said in the recording, according to NPR.
"Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel," Burr added. "You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?"
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