WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who’s facing a political firestorm for selling off stocks ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, has asked for a Senate ethics investigation into his actions.
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics operates largely in secret, dismisses the vast majority of allegations it receives and involves senators policing their own colleagues. The public usually doesn’t know which complaints are before the panel or how they’re resolved.
And critics of the committee are skeptical that it will conduct a serious investigation into whether the North Carolina Republican senator, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, broke the law by using nonpublic information about the threat posed by the virus when he dumped up to $1.7 million of stocks in February.
The Senate Ethics Committee is “notorious” for covering up violations of ethics rules, rather than enforcing them, said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the advocacy group Public Citizen. “They’re members … sitting in judgment of their own friends.”
Holman said he suspects Burr requested that the panel investigate him because “it’s his best shot of not getting anything done.”
Largely, “the Ethics Committee is a place where investigations are left to die,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The Senate ethics panel — established in 1964 — is a bipartisan committee that consists of three Democrats and three Republicans. The full Senate has the authority to punish and oust its members, but the Ethics Committee is tasked with conducting investigations and making recommendations. The committee is now chaired by Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican.
After his stock activity made waves in the media, Burr sent a letter asking the Ethics Committee for a “full and expedited investigation” of his sales.
“While I relied solely on public reporting to guide my decision to sell the stock, it is my belief that an independent review is warranted to ensure full and complete transparency,” he wrote.
Burr’s office directed a question about the status of an investigation to the Ethics Committee, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Committee ‘moves very, very slowly’
It’s possible that the public won’t be alerted if an ethics investigation is launched, and investigations can be lengthy. Meanwhile, Burr’s career in the Senate could be relatively short; he has said he won’t run for another term in 2022.
“If the committee chooses not to issue a public statement, all allegations are treated confidentially and the committee has a practice of neither confirming nor denying that a matter is before the committee,” according to a Congressional Research Service report about the panel.
And the committee has no set time frame for its investigations, which can generally take months, the committee’s former chief counsel and staff director told CBS in 2017.
“Intentionally or not, the Ethics Committee moves very, very slowly,” Manley said. “After a couple months, everybody is going to forget all about this,” he said of the possible inquiry into Burr.
The committee’s website links to only eight news releases issued over the past decade. Four of those statements announced preliminary inquiries into specific senators, but indicated that such public comments were unusual.
In Nov. 2017, as then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) came under fire for sexual harassment allegations, the Senate ethics panel wrote, “While the Committee does not generally comment on pending matters or matters that may come before it, in this instance, the Committee is publicly confirming that it has opened a preliminary inquiry into Senator Franken’s alleged misconduct.”
Franken resigned in January 2018, before the ethics panel had made its recommendations.
In April 2018, the committee admonished Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) over failing to acknowledge certain gifts from a friend and donor. The committee had started its investigation in 2012, but put it on pause during a criminal investigation into Menendez.
The committee has the authority to recommend expulsion, censure and other disciplinary measures to the full Senate. It can also report violations of the law to the proper federal and state authorities.
Dating back to July 30, 2002, the committee has publicly admonished six senators, according to links to those letters on the panel’s website.
But most complaints lodged with the committee are resolved privately.
The panel has received between 26 and 251 complaints of alleged violations of Senate rules annually over the past decade. The vast majority of those complaints are dismissed, according to a review of the committee’s annual reports dating back to 2010. From 2010 through 2019, three letters of admonition were issued and no allegations resulted in disciplinary sanctions, according to the reports.
The Senate hasn’t expelled any members since the 1860s, when 14 were ousted for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.
A lawsuit, calls for resignation
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin has called for Burr to step down. “Senator Burr has betrayed the trust of every North Carolinian in a time of crisis and should resign immediately,” he said.
Burr has also taken heat from his own party. Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz slammed the North Carolina senator for remaining the intelligence chairman “after screwing all Americans by falsely reassuring us” with op-eds on COVID-19 “while he dumped his stock portfolio early.”
Holman of Public Citizen said he’d like the executive branch to get involved.
“What I am hoping for is that either [the Justice Department] or [the Securities and Exchange Commission] — or both — decides to take over the case, at which point the Senate Ethics Committee will defer to those enforcement agencies,” Holman said.
Burr’s critics claim that he may have violated the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, 2012 legislation that bars lawmakers and their staffs from using information that isn’t publicly available when they buy or sell stocks.
Burr was one of three senators who opposed the passage of the law. He said in a radio interview at the time that he was one of the “brave souls” who opposed the legislation, suggesting that it wasn’t necessary. “The laws that are currently on the books apply to all members of Congress and all staff,” he said.
The uproar caused by Burr and other lawmakers selling stocks during the coronavirus outbreak could prod Congress to toughen disclosure requirements, Holman said.
“I want to see Congress reinstate a full disclosure system for these stock transactions,” he said. In 2013, Congress repealed some significant pieces of the law’s disclosure requirements.
As for Burr’s trading, Holman said there’s “every indication” that it was a “flat-out violation of federal law.” The Intelligence Committee chairman was “publicly echoing [President] Donald Trump’s line that, ‘There is no problem, don’t worry,’ but privately sold off all his stock in a single day.”
Burr is also facing a federal lawsuit over his actions. Axios reported that Wyndham Hotels and Resorts shareholder Alan Jacobson is suing Burr for securities fraud and “abuse of his powers” when he sold his $150,000 stake in the business.
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