WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr on Thursday stepped down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a day after FBI agents seized his cellphone as part of a criminal investigation into his stock sales during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Thursday on the North Carolina Republican.
“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,” said McConnell.
Speaking to reporters outside his Senate office on Thursday, Burr said the FBI’s visit to his home Wednesday night was ”part of the investigation, and everybody ought to let this investigation play out.” Burr said he was cooperating with prosecutors, and has been “since the beginning.”
Asked about his decision to turn over the committee gavel while the investigation continues, Burr said the federal criminal probe was ”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.”
Federal agents served a search warrant Wednesday to Burr’s attorney for the senator’s cellphone, NBC News reported, citing Justice Department officials. The FBI later went to Burr’s home to retrieve the phone.
The Los Angeles Times first reported the seizure of Burr’s phone.
On Feb. 13, Burr sold stocks worth $630,000 to $1.7 million in a one-day sale involved 33 individual trades. One week later, markets began a steep slide as investors panicked over the potential economic damage from coronavirus.
As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr was given access to classified intelligence reports in January and early February that contained dire warnings about the coronavirus.
After years of work, Burr was still finalizing his committee’s bipartisan report on the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election when he stepped down.
New questions about Burr’s stock sales arose last week, when ProPublica reported that on the very day that Burr sold his stocks, Feb. 13, Burr’s brother-in-law, Trump appointee Gerald Fauth, also sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of stock.
Fauth is a former transportation consultant, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017 to a seat on the three-member National Mediation Board, a federal agency that helps facilitate labor relations for the transportation industry.
Burr’s attorney, Alice Fisher, told ProPublica that Burr “participated in the stock market based on public information,” and that “he did not coordinate his decision to trade on Feb. 13 with Mr. Fauth.”
According to the LA Times, federal agents served an earlier warrant on Apple for information about Burr’s iCloud account. They then used that information as evidence to obtain a search warrant from a judge for Burr’s phone.
It was unclear whether Fauth had also been served with a warrant. CNBC called the number for Fauth’s consulting firm, but there was no answer.
Members of Congress are prohibited by law from using nonpublic information they obtain through their official positions in order to personally profit off the stock market. The STOCK Act that codified this ban was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, after passing the Senate in a 96-3 vote.
Burr was one of only three senators who voted against the STOCK Act.
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