Documents related to search warrant in Burr’s stock sale case won’t become public

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The information behind a reported search warrant executed on U.S. Sen. Richard Burr during an investigation into stock sales early in the coronavirus pandemic will not be made public, a federal district court judge ruled Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Times sought to unseal court records pertaining to the search warrant. The Times reported, citing an anonymous source, that the FBI executed the warrant on May 13, 2020, in Washington and Burr turned over phones.

Burr, a North Carolina Republican who stepped down as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee the next day, was not charged with any crime. Burr said the case was dropped in January.

“Assuming that the requested materials exist, and that the qualified public right of access attaches, no disclosure of search warrant materials would be appropriate in a closed, non-public investigation that has not resulted in criminal charges, and where individual privacy and governmental interests may be implicated,” D.C. District Court Judge Beryl Howell wrote in her ruling.

Burr’s office declined comment Thursday.

The ruling was first reported by Politico.

The Los Angeles Times was seeking all materials associated with the search warrant, including the application, supporting affidavits, the actual warrant and the return. The Times also asked the court to unseal the government’s response in opposition to the original request.

Howell denied the requests, saying the arguments failed under both common-law and First Amendment standards. Neither the government nor Burr acknowledged that a search warrant existed or was executed.

“When an investigation has not led to criminal prosecution, the subject of the criminal investigation has significant privacy interests,” Howell wrote. She said the release of the materials could impact other people as well as the government, which has an interest in preserving the anonymity of those who communicate their knowledge of crimes.

“These interests are no less great where some of the relevant information has been reported on in the news media,” Howell wrote.

Stock sales

Burr, 65, is in his third and final term as a U.S. senator. He announced during his 2016 reelection campaign that he would not seek another term. Burr previously served five terms in the U.S. House.

Burr and his wife sold up to $1.72 million in stock on Feb. 13, 2020 — sales which were reported in mandatory Senate financial disclosures. The sales came at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Burr, then the chairman of the Senate’s health committee, had received briefings about the status of the virus, which had not yet become a crisis in the United States.

Burr was one of three senators to vote against the 2012 STOCK Act, which prohibits profiting off “any nonpublic information derived from their positions as Members or congressional employees.”

Burr denied using any inside information to make his stock decisions and asked the Senate Ethics Committee to “open a complete review of the mater with full transparency.”

“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureau at the time,” Burr said in a statement in March 2020.

In early February 2020, Burr co-wrote a column for Fox News, aimed at reassuring the nation it was “better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats.” Burr had authored the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006, which was reauthorized in 2013 and again in 2019.

But Burr was worried about the virus. He told a group at a luncheon in late February 2020 that “it is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic,” according to audio obtained by NPR.

More than 3.5 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 or the coronavirus, including nearly 600,000 in the United States. In response to the virus, governments ordered an economic shutdown in most of the nation, which caused spiking unemployment and sharp market declines for industries impacted. Thanks to multiple effective vaccines, much of the nation has reopened.

“The case is now closed,” Burr said in January. “I’m glad to hear it. My focus has been and will continue to be working for the people of North Carolina during this difficult time for our nation.”

Three other U.S. senators — Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republicans Kelly Loeffler and James Inhofe — faced investigations into their stock sales, but they were notified in May 2020 that they would not face federal charges.

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