Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia, have come under fire for selling off stocks collectively worth millions of dollars ahead of the economic downturn that has coincided with the coronavirus pandemic.
Senators are allowed to buy and sell stocks. But they are, as of a 2012 law known as the STOCK Act, prohibited from using nonpublic information to turn a private profit.
Records of Mr. Burr’s stock transactions show that he and his wife sold stocks collectively worth $628,000 to $1.7 million on Feb. 13, according to his financial disclosures. They sold 33 different stocks, including as much as $150,000 in two hotel chains, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Extended Stay America.
Ms. Loeffler and her husband reported 27 stock sales beginning on Jan. 24 worth up to millions of dollars. Her husband is Jeffrey C. Sprecher, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. She has said she does not manage her own portfolio.
The Senate had received a coronavirus briefing the day her stock sales began. Ms. Loeffler tweeted about the briefing that day. “Appreciate today’s briefing from the President’s top health officials on the novel coronavirus outbreak,” she wrote. “These men and women are working around the clock to keep our country safe and healthy.”
Other senators have also sold holdings in recent weeks and before the major economic downturn, including Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. Those transactions have drawn far less scrutiny.
Ms. Feinstein’s office said her assets were in a blind trust and she was not involved in her husband’s financial decisions. Mr. Inhofe said in a statement that he did not attend the Jan. 24 briefing and that his transactions were part of a sell off that his financial adviser had begun in late 2018, when he became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
What Burr and Loeffler are saying
Both Mr. Burr and Ms. Loeffler have claimed no wrongdoing.
“This is a ridiculous and baseless attack,” Ms. Loeffler wrote on Twitter early Friday morning. “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”
She linked to her financial disclosure report and said, “I was informed of these purchases and sales on February 16, 2020 — three weeks after they were made.”
Mr. Burr, who as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee receives regular briefings on threats to the United States, said in a statement on Friday that he “relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks.”
“Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureau at the time,” he said.
He requested an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, a typically long and secretive process run by a bipartisan group of senators, writing in a letter to the committee that “an independent review is warranted.”
Burr isn’t up for re-election, but he could face pressure to step aside
Mr. Burr, 64, would next be up for re-election in 2022, but he said during his 2016 campaign that it would be his last run for office. “It’s real simple: I’m beginning to get old,” he said at the time.
He could come under pressure to leave office sooner, as the stock sales are not the only reason Mr. Burr has drawn scrutiny.
On Feb. 7, days before his stock sell off, Mr. Burr argued in an opinion piece for Fox News that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.”
Then, NPR reported on Thursday that Mr. Burr had spoken to a smaller gathering on Feb. 27 and warned of dire potential consequences from the virus. “It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” he said, according to NPR’s recording. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”
Tucker Carlson, a prominent Fox News personality, accused Mr. Burr of privately profiting while failing to use his platform to properly warn the public. Mr. Carlson said on Thursday evening’s program that if Mr. Burr was unable to explain himself sufficiently, he should resign and face prosecution. “There is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis,” he said.
President Trump declined to criticize the stock transactions on Friday, saying he did not “know too much what it is.”
“But I find them all to be honorable people,” he said of the senators. “They said they did nothing wrong.”
Loeffler faces voters — and multiple challengers — this fall
Ms. Loeffler, 49, is new to the Senate. Previously a major G.O.P. donor, she was appointed in December to replace Johnny Isakson, who resigned because of health concerns, and took office in January. The stock sales came weeks into her tenure.
Unlike Mr. Burr, she claimed no personal knowledge of the sales on Friday, suggesting they had been executed by her broker. “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio,” she said.
Also unlike Mr. Burr, Ms. Loeffler will soon face voters. A special election is currently scheduled for Nov. 3, the same day as the general election. There will be no primary, but if no candidate receives a majority in November, a runoff will take place.
Ms. Loeffler already faces a strong Republican challenger in Representative Doug Collins, a conservative whose Senate candidacy was immediately opposed by the Republican establishment aligned with Ms. Loeffler.
He quickly seized on her stock sales on Friday, writing on Twitter: “People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain? I’m sickened just thinking about it.”
Ms. Loeffler will have Democratic opponents in the special election as well, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the leader of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church; Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor; and Matt Lieberman, the son of former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed Mr. Warnock.