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Sen. Burr To Step Down As Intelligence Chairman During Stock Sell-Off Probe

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go now to an update on a story NPR broke earlier this spring. In March, we found out that Senator Richard Burr privately warned a group of constituents to prepare for the coronavirus. It then came out that he had sold off stocks in travel companies that would end up being affected. And this was weeks before the pandemic sent markets into freefall. Federal law enforcement officials are now investigating Senator Burr for alleged insider trading. And today will be the senator's last day as chairman of the influential Senate Intelligence Committee. NPR's Tim Mak is the one who broke that story, and he joins us now. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: So what do we know about Senator Burr's decision to step down as chairman?

MAK: Well, the one to actually make the announcement initially was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top ranking Republican in the Senate. He said that Burr would be stepping aside temporarily as chairman while the investigation is underway and that this - it takes effect later today. For his part, Senator Burr has denied the allegations. He has said that he is cooperating with federal investigators and that he stepped down because he did not want to distract from the work of the committee.

MARTIN: The FBI executed a search warrant and seized Burr's cellphone this week. Can you just take us back and tell us how this investigation has unfolded?

MAK: Right. So we had initially broken the news that Senator Burr privately told well-connected constituents back in February how bad he thought the coronavirus crisis would become. He warned about travel, he warned about schools, and he said that the pandemic would be possibly as bad as the influenza pandemic of 1918. But Burr never warned the general public. And since then, federal law enforcement has been investigating Senator Burr over his stock transactions, where he dumped up to $1.7 million in stocks on February 13 - a single day - in 33 transactions. And this was right before the coronavirus market crash. So it's hard to overstate how big this latest development is. The LA Times, the Los Angeles Times, reported Wednesday night that the warrant had been executed and a cellphone seized from Senator Burr. NPR has since confirmed this. To obtain a search warrant for a sitting senator, obviously, that's a very sensitive matter.

MARTIN: Right.

MAK: Investigators would have needed to get approval from some of the highest levels of the Justice Department to proceed with this. And then they would have needed to show a judge probable cause that a crime had been committed to get this warrant.

MARTIN: So in a case like this, what specifically are law enforcement officials looking for?

MAK: Right. So Senator Burr's decision to dump stocks was very unusual, considering his history of transactions. When it comes to insider trading, investigators are looking for evidence that Senator Burr had information about the coronavirus that was material and nonpublic. They'll want to know whether he had access to information as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the public just didn't have any access to in general.

MARTIN: Right. So he's not the only one who's had these questions raised about the timing of stock transactions, though. How about other senators?

MAK: Right. Senator - Senate Democrat Dianne Feinstein's office said she spoke with federal investigators about her husband's stock trades. Now, her office says that Senator Feinstein was asked some voluntary questions and that she provided documents to show that she was not involved in her husband's transactions. There's also been questions raised by Senator Kelly Loeffler. She's a Republican in the Senate, and she's also been under some scrutiny over her stock transactions. She said Thursday evening - her office said Thursday evening she had shared some documents with the Justice Department.

MARTIN: Yeah. And she says she acted appropriately. NPR's Tim Mak, we appreciate it.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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