AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina called for the Senate Ethics Committee today to conduct a complete review of his own actions. This follows reports that Sen. Burr sold up to $1.7 million worth of stocks just before the recent market collapse. And then Sen. Burr delivered some mixed messages. He gave the general public an optimistic picture of the coronavirus, but behind closed doors, he painted a much dire - much more dire picture, comparing it to the 1918 flu pandemic.
NPR's Tim Mak has been following this story and how it raises questions about an eight-year-old law designed to prevent elected officials from profiting off information they learn while serving in Congress.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: All right, so just remind us how this all started with a piece of tape that you found.
MAK: That's right. This all started when NPR obtained and published a secret tape of Sen. Burr warning a private group of well-connected constituents how bad coronavirus would be. He made this warning three weeks ago, and while he warned attendees at this private luncheon about his concerns on February 27, he never told the broader public. The news organization ProPublica saw my story and wondered if Sen. Burr was acting on his private pessimism about the coming coronavirus crisis. And so they dug into Senate financial disclosures and found he had dumped between 600 and $28,000 and $1.72 million of stock in a single day - on February 13 - in 33 separate transactions.
CHANG: That's very striking. OK. And that story centers around a law called the STOCK Act, right? Can you just tell us what is the STOCK Act and how it applies here?
MAK: So Craig Holman, he's the government affairs lobbyist for a watchdog group called Public Citizen. He was one of its earliest advocates.
CRAIG HOLMAN: Prior to 2012, the insider trading laws that apply to you, me and Martha Stewart didn't apply to members of Congress.
MAK: So the STOCK Act prohibits lawmakers from using non-public information gathered as part of their official duties to enrich themselves through the stock market. It also requires lawmakers to file financial disclosures of stock transactions, and that's where ProPublica got its information. The Daily Beast on Thursday picked up on NPR and ProPublica's reporting and published their own story suggesting that another senator, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, also made stock market transactions based on private coronavirus briefings given to senators. And questions have been raised about other senators as well. Loeffler, for her part, says that financial advisers manage her stocks, and she doesn't take part in it. And Sen. Burr said in a statement today that he made his stock sales all based on publicly available information he saw on the news, not any sort of private information gleaned from being Senate Intelligence Committee chairman.
CHANG: Tell us. What have been the reactions you've heard since this whole story broke?
MAK: Well, some government watchdogs really swung into action. Noah Bookbinder, he heads up Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. His group filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee about the two senators we've talked about.
NOAH BOOKBINDER: There's public information that suggests that they may well have abused their positions for their own personal gain in a time of crisis.
MAK: But there's some concern that the Senate Ethics Committee is kind of a toothless body as well. Daniel Schuman is the policy director with Demand Progress. That's a progressive group. His group filed a complaint with that committee as well.
DANIEL SCHUMAN: The Senate Ethics Committee rarely, if ever, publicly admonishes or takes steps to punish members of the Senate. The Ethics Committee is basically a place for these complaints go to die.
CHANG: That is a common perception. So what have we been hearing from lawmakers since this story was reported?
MAK: You know, there has been a real wave of public anger. They're responding to these stories about stock sales. Sen. Burr's fellow North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said that Burr owes the public an explanation. Sen. Rick Scott also said that there are pretty high standards when you run for office, and you shouldn't be using your office for personal benefit - a lot of bipartisan interest in getting some answers...
CHANG: All right.
MAK: ...About this topic.
CHANG: That is NPR's Tim Mak.
Thank you, Tim.
MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.