WASHINGTON – Sen. Richard Burr is stepping down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee as an FBI investigation into Burr’s stock sales led to the seizure of his cellphone by federal investigators.
“The work the Intelligence Committee and its members do is too important to risk hindering in any way,” Burr said in a statement released through his office. “I believe this step is necessary to allow the Committee to continue its essential work free of external distractions.”
Burr informed Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of his decision Thursday morning.
Alice Fisher, Burr’s attorney, said the senator has been “actively cooperating with federal investigators.
“From the outset, Sen. Burr has been focused on an appropriate and thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate,” Fisher said.
A senior Justice Department official confirmed that Burr’s phone had been seized as the agency probes stock sales that the GOP senator made ahead of the coronavirus market crash.
The search warrant was served on Burr’s lawyer, and the cellphone was later retrieved at the senator’s home, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly.
The move required approval at the top levels levels of the department, marking a dramatic escalation of the investigation into Burr’s actions. In order to obtain a warrant, authorities must show that there is probable cause that a possible crime has been committed.
As the investigation intensified, McConnell, said in a statement that he and Burr agreed that it would be in “the bests interests” of the Intelligence Committee for the North Carolina Republican to step down as its chairman.
“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,” McConnell said in a statement. “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.”
First elected to Congress in 1994, Burr served five terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2004. He is serving his third term and chaired the Intelligence Committee during its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Los Angeles Times first reported the phone seizure late Wednesday.
The Justice Department launched an inquiry into the stock sales in March, a person familiar told USA TODAY at the time.
Sens. Burr; Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.; Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and their spouses or advisers sold stocks around the same time lawmakers received briefings about the severity of the coronavirus, financial disclosure forms showed.
A Feinstein spokesman said Thursday that the senator responded to written questions submitted by the FBI last month about the matter.
“Senator Feinstein was asked some basic questions by law enforcement about her husband’s stock transactions,” the spokesman said. “She was happy to voluntarily answer those questions to set the record straight and provided additional documents to show she had no involvement in her husband’s transactions. There have been no follow-up actions on this issue.”
A Loeffler spokesperson said late Thursday that the senator also has forwarded documents to the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee.
“The documents and information demonstrated her and her husband’s lack of involvement in their managed accounts, as well as the details of those accounts,” the senator’s office said in written statement. “Senator Loeffler has welcomed and responded to any questions from day one.”
Earlier Thursday, a Loeffler staffer did not respond to questions about whether the senator was interviewed or provided documents to investigators.
Inhofe staffers, meanwhile, did not immediately respond to questions submitted by USA TODAY.
At the time the stock sales were revealed, the senators denied any wrongdoing. Burr called for an Ethics Committee review into his conduct as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called on him to resign his seat.
“The law is clear that any American – including a senator – may participate in the stock market based on public information, as Senator Burr did,” Burr’s attorney, Alice Fisher, said at the end of March. “When this issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review, and he will cooperate with that review as well as any other appropriate inquiry.”
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Burr and his wife sold up to $1.6 million in February, and said they did so based only on public news reports about the coronavirus.
The 2012 Stock Act bars members of Congress from using insider information to make trading decisions. Burr was one of three senators who voted against the law.