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Sen. Burr steps aside as Intelligence Committee chair after FBI serves warrant in stock inquiry

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2018. (Cheriss May/Sipa USA/TNS)

The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday he would temporarily step down from his committee post after the FBI seized his cellphone in its investigation into whether he sold a significant portion of his stock portfolio because of information he learned in the course of his Senate work.

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., said the investigation is a “distraction to the hard work of the committee and the members, and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he and Burr agreed that his decision to step aside “would be in the best interests of the committee” and would take effect Friday evening.

The move marks a significant escalation of law enforcement’s investigation into potentially millions of dollars worth of stock trades Burr made as the coronavirus first struck the United States.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Burr turned his phone over to agents after they served a search warrant on the lawmaker at his residence in the Washington area.

Burr sold a significant percentage of his stock portfolio in 33 different transactions on Feb. 13, just as his committee was receiving coronavirus briefings from U.S. public health officials and a week before the stock market declined sharply. Much of the stock was invested in businesses that in subsequent weeks were hit hard by the plunging market.

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He has previously denied any wrongdoing, saying he made the trades based solely on public information. He said Thursday he is complying with the FBI’s investigation and that he plans to serve out his term, which ends in 2022.

Several other senators from both parties also sold and bought stock ahead of the market downturn. It’s not clear who else the Justice Department may be examining.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was questioned last month by law enforcement about stock transactions by her husband, Richard Blum, shortly before stocks tumbled.

Feinstein was asked “basic factual” questions, according to her spokesman, Tom Mentzer.

“She was happy to voluntarily answer those questions to set the record straight and provided additional documents to show she had no involvement in her husband’s transactions,” Mentzer said. “There have been no follow-up actions on this issue.”

Feinstein’s personal stocks have been in a blind trust since she came to the Senate, Mentzer said. The stocks traded in February were owned by her husband. Senators are required to disclose their spouses’ financial holdings.

While walking into the Capitol on Thursday, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who sold stocks valued at between $1.25 million and $3.1 million in late February and early March in companies that later dropped significantly, ignored questions about whether she had been questioned.

Burr has often found himself crosswise with conservatives because his work as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has put him at odds with President DonaldTrump.

Last month, Republicans and Democrats on the panel released a report based on three years of investigation that backed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behest.

The report rejected Trump’s claim that the intelligence community was biased against him when it made its own conclusion to the same effect. A final report from the committee on whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia is still expected to be released.

The Intelligence Committee has also long praised the intelligence community, which Trump has questioned.

In 2017, Burr said he would “make it a habit” to no longer go to the White House while his committee’s investigation into the president was underway, he told the Hill newspaper.

Sean Davis, co-founder of the conservative online magazine the Federalist, tied the FBI raid to the panel’s Russia investigation, echoing the anger among some conservative Trump backers about the lengthy Senate investigation.

“As chairman of Senate Intel, Richard Burr ran interference for the corrupt intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracy behind the attempted coup against Trump. With the FBI raid of his home and seizure of his phone, I wonder if Burr regrets his refusal to do actual oversight,” Davis said in a tweet.

Burr has the public support of his fellow Senate Republicans, who repeatedly said Thursday in the sparsely populated Capitol that he has a presumption of innocence. Still, they supported his decision to step down from the high-profile position.

“I respect his decision to step down,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Obviously, he’s entitled to a presumption of innocence, just like anybody else, and I know he’s asked the Ethics Committee to conduct an investigation as well. So, the best I can tell, he is trying to do the right thing by the Senate, and I appreciate it.”

Others suggested that Burr likely was closely watching the virus developments in China, as Burr himself has suggested.

“I don’t believe he did anything criminally wrong, maybe used poor judgment, I guess,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “But I know Richard and he’s the one guy I can tell you who actually does watch CNBC Hong Kong.”

Still, Republicans expressed hope that the cloud of the investigation would clear soon.

“My assumption is this move by the FBI hopefully means they’re getting close to winding things up and we’ll see where it goes. Obviously they’ve got to follow the facts,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the majority whip.

The FBI investigation focuses on whether Burr violated a law preventing members of Congress from trading on insider information they have gleaned from their official work. Burr was among the three senators who voted against the law, the STOCK Act, in 2012.

Former federal prosecutors said the search warrant is a bad sign for Burr. They noted prosecutors and agents would have needed high-level approval from the Justice Department to seek a warrant on a sitting U.S. senator. And such a warrant would certainly be scrutinized by any judge to ensure it exceeds the threshold of proof — probable cause — necessary to seize it.

“In my experience, when a public official is served with a search warrant, it does not end well,” said Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in public corruption cases. “Law enforcement officials are hesitant to take such bold action, knowing it will make the news, unless they are confident that they have more than probable cause that the target has engaged in criminal conduct.”

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.