Dozens of members of Congress have bought and sold stocks hundreds of times throughout the coronavirus pandemic, including some trades that may have been prompted by information that came to them in the course of their official duties, a new analysis shows. This obvious conflict of interest should motivate voters to demand that their representatives ban themselves from personally making stock-trade decisions.
The issue first erupted in March when a few lawmakers were revealed to have made advantageous stock decisions related to the coronavirus just as cases were starting to be diagnosed in this country. Those same lawmakers had access to privileged official information and analyses about the crisis that ordinary Americans didn’t have.
On the same January day when the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefed Congress on the projected, dire economic effects of the coming pandemic, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Georgia, began dumping millions of dollars in stocks just before their value plummeted. She also purchased stock in a maker of teleconferencing products that would soon be in high demand. In the same period, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., dumped at least $628,000 stocks that included several hotel companies whose value later plummeted.
Loeffler claimed to have no role in the stock decisions, and Burr claimed to have made his decisions based only on publicly available information. But the nation has only their word that it wasn’t the worst kind of insider trading — by public officials getting advantageous tips through their tax-funded positions.
That would be illegal, but the circumstances alone aren’t prohibited. There’s nothing to prevent members of Congress from making stock decisions that may look suspicious as long as there’s no proof they used information gleaned from their positions. But short of reading minds, how, exactly, could anyone prove otherwise?
A recent analysis by the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center has found that a lot of members of Congress were busily reshuffling their stock portfolios as the pandemic rocked the markets. From early February to early April, the group found, a dozen senators made 127 stock transactions — purchases or sales — while 37 House members made 1,358 transactions.
Not all the transactions were suspicious, but some clearly were. They included purchases of stock in pharmaceutical companies working on potential coronavirus vaccines, car makers that were tapped to manufacture ventilators, and alcohol producers that started producing hand sanitizer.
It could be they were just paying close attention to the news and adjusting their portfolios accordingly — or it could be something else. The only thing that’s sure is that it looks bad, undermining public trust in Congress, an institution already sorely lacking in it. A regulation requiring members of Congress to put their portfolios in blind trusts would go a long way toward building that trust.