U.S. Senate intelligence committee chair steps aside during insider-trading investigation

Sen. Richard Burr stepped aside as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday after the FBI served a search warrant for his phone as part of an ongoing insider-trading investigation tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

FBI served search warrant for Sen. Richard Burr's phone as part of probe

Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina speaks during a virtual Senate committee for health, education, labour and pensions hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this week. (Win McNamee/Pool/The Associated Press)

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, temporarily stepped aside as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday after the FBI served a search warrant for his cellphone as part of an ongoing insider-trading investigation tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced the move, saying he and Burr had agreed that it was in the committee's best interests.

"We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow," McConnell said in a statement.

Burr had denied wrongdoing. He said he relied solely on news reports to guide decisions on stock sales, amid reports that he and other senators sold shares after private briefings on the risks of the coronavirus crisis.

'I thought this was the best thing to do'

He told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday he decided to step aside because he did not want the investigation to distract the intelligence committee from its work.

"I thought this was the best thing to do," Burr said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House before travelling to Pennsylvania on Thursday, said he was unaware that Burr was leaving his intelligence post.

"I know nothing about it — never discussed it with anybody," Trump said. "That's too bad."

FBI officials showed up at Burr's home with the warrant on Wednesday, two people familiar with the investigation said Thursday, marking a significant escalation into the Justice Department's investigation into whether Burr broke the law with a well-timed sale of stocks before the coronavirus caused markets to plummet. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The search warrant was served on Burr's lawyers, and FBI agents went to Burr's home in the Washington area to retrieve the cellphone, a senior Justice Department official said. The decision to obtain the warrant, which must be authorized by a judge, was approved at the highest levels of the department, the official said.

The official could not discuss the ongoing investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department declined to comment. Burr's attorney did not respond to phone and email messages, but said in a statement last month that the law is clear that any senator can participate in stock market trading based on public information "as Sen. Burr did." Attorney Alice Fisher said that Burr welcomed a review of the stock sales, "which will establish that his actions were appropriate."

Burr has denied wrongdoing but has also requested an ethics review of the stock sales. Burr is an amiable member of the Senate, and his quick call for an ethics investigation and willingness to co-operate with authorities appears to have bought him some goodwill among colleagues tapping down immediate calls for him to step aside.

Senate records show that Burr and his wife sold between roughly $600,000 US and $1.7 million in more than 30 transactions in late January and mid-February, just before the market began to nosedive and government health officials began to sound alarms about the virus. Several of the stocks were in companies that own hotels.

Other senators also sold off stocks

Burr was not the only lawmaker to sell off stocks before the market slide.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a new senator from Georgia up for re-election this year, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in late January and February, as senators began to get briefings on the virus, according to records. So did fellow Georgia Sen. David Perdue, another Republican lawmaker running for re-election, and also Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

Senators did receive a closed-door briefing on the virus on Jan. 24, which was public knowledge. A separate briefing was held Feb. 12 by the Senate health, education, labour and pensions committee, which Burr is a member of. It's unclear if he attended either session.

It's unclear who will take Burr's place. The next several Republican members in seniority are already chairs of other committees, though they could choose to switch.

Next in seniority is Idaho Sen. James Risch, who told reporters on Thursday that he didn't know if he would keep his current perch as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee or move to the intelligence panel.

Following him is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who heads the Senate small business committee. He said he wasn't aware that Burr was stepping aside and that the decision on who takes over the panel was up to McConnell.

Burr's six-year term ends in 2023, and he does not plan to run for re-election.

He was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and chaired the Senate intelligence committee as the panel conducted its own investigation into Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential election. The committee recently issued a report supporting the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia had interfered on Donald Trump's behalf.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the search warrant.

With files from Reuters

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