Justice Department seized Sen. Burr's phone over 'well-timed stock sales'

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Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., right, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., committee vice chair, speak to the media after receiving closed briefings from Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and National intelligence inspector general Michael Atkinson, Thursday Sept. 26, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), right, had his phone seized as part of an investigation into stock sales he made at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Associated Press)

The Justice Department launched a criminal insider-trading and securities fraud investigation of Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) over what the FBI called “well-timed stock sales” at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to a partially redacted warrant released Monday evening.

The Los Angeles Times successfully sued for access to the warrant under the Freedom of Information Act, then fought the extensive redactions made by the department.

In late August, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell ordered the Justice Department to file a new version of the warrant with fewer redactions and additional information on what evidence it relied on to seek the warrant but accepted the department’s request to keep certain third-party witness information and law enforcement techniques under seal.

"We're pleased to see that these less-redacted filings provide the public with additional insight into the government's investigation. While some redactions remain, the public now has a much clearer picture of the government's basis for executing a warrant for Sen. Burr's cellphone," said Katie Townsend, an attorney for The Times who works for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Howell has asked the government to make an additional filing Wednesday so she can evaluate the remaining redactions. Townsend said lawyers for The Times and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are also reviewing the redactions.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia declined to comment.

The May 2020 warrant request to search Burr’s cellphone said that in February of that year, while the government was downplaying concerns about COVID-19 in the U.S., Burr sold 95% of his holdings in his individual retirement account and 58% of the holdings in wife Brooke Burr's IRA. He also purchased $1,189,000 in the Federated U.S. Treasury Cash Reserves Fund using 76% of the total holdings in the joint account held by him and his wife.

“His portfolio went from approximately 83% in equities to approximately 3% in equities. Beginning on February 20, 2020 — six days after Senator Burr’s sale of the majority of his equity — the stock market endured a dramatic and substantial downturn," FBI special agent Brandon Merriman said in the affidavit used to justify the search. "In total, Senator Burr avoided more than an estimated $87,000 in loss as a result of his well-timed stock sales, and profited more than $164,000.”

Burr's brother-in-law Gerald Fauth sold about $160,000 in stocks after speaking and texting with Burr, the affidavit states.

The 38-page FBI affidavit argued that the mid-February timing of sales of stock held by Burr, his wife and Fauth was suspicious and stated that agents were looking for text messages and other communications about the stock sales as part of an investigation into whether Burr violated a law preventing members of Congress from trading on insider information they glean from their official work.

The partially redacted version of the warrant provides few details on what nonpublic information Burr, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had about the pandemic prior to his stock sales. He stepped down from the committee shortly after The Times broke news of the search warrant.

Burr and other senators received briefings from U.S. public health officials before the stock sales. Several of them, including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, were scrutinized by the Justice Department for potential violations of congressional insider-trading rules for selling or purchasing stock at the start of the pandemic. Burr's was the only case in which a warrant was obtained.

Burr was never charged with crimes connected to the trades. The Justice Department confirmed in its June court filings that it dropped the investigation in January 2021. A month later, The Times filed its lawsuit, arguing that the records should be made public to explain the department's unusual decision to pursue a warrant against a sitting member of Congress.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.