The hits just keep on coming for Richard Burr, U.S. senator, one-time lawnmower salesman and, until the past few weeks, a favored native son.
Inside trader, pandemic profiteer and King of the Good Ol’ Boys are but a few of the kinder appellations affixed to Burr’s name following the news — which really isn’t all that shocking — that in February he privately dumped between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks while assuring the rest of us saps that all was well with the coronavirus.
Predictably, the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission started asking questions and a lawsuit alleging that Burr “has acted as a scofflaw in a time of national crisis” was filed within days.
D.C. lawyers aren’t cheap, and the legal fees might eat into his tidy profits.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the senator.
The chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee and, perhaps more significantly, the son of a well-respected Presbyterian pastor, Burr should have had, shall we say, a better ethical compass.
Or at minimum, the slightest inkling of how these dealings might look.
But by all appearances — and a growing pandemic of evidence — he didn’t.
Another brick in the wall
ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, reported Tuesday that Burr sold a townhouse near Capitol Hill in 2017 to a pharmaceutical lobbyist for $900,000.
Nothing too strange about that; the D.C. real-estate market, in the wealthier neighborhoods anyway, is over-ripened bananas.
“There is no evidence that (the lobbyist) tried to influence Burr’s actions as a senator or discussed any legislation with him specifically,” ProPublica wrote.
Of course not. Still, that sounds eerily similar to saying that Big Pharma doesn’t expect a thing from the tens of millions the industry donates to politicians.
(Burr’s career campaign committee haul, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, from the pharmaceutical industry is nearly $1.6 million, with another $2 million from the health care industry. His total haul since 1991 rounds out to a cool $40 million.)
But it is odd that the sales price for the townhouse, according to ProPublica, was “tens of thousands above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real-estate website and a local real estate agent.”
It’s also odd, but not illegal or unethical, that Burr bought a beachfront house in Nags Head after selling the townhouse. That’s just a good trade-up in second homes.
Still, beyond being (another) bad look for a guy who’s leaped to the top of a “Drain the Swamp” leaderboard, it’s possible for an inflated sales price to be considered a gift from a lobbyist — a no-fly zone under Senate ethics rules.
The senator so far has said next to nothing publicly about the rising tide of scandal eroding what, up to now, has been a reputation as a perfectly competent, largely anonymous career politician. Which is as it should be; any ham-and-egg courthouse hustler would advise even the densest dope slinger to shut the hell up.
Don’t talk to cops and certainly not the press. That one’s free; a D.C. lawyer’s bill for the same advice could easily run six figures.
“Senator Burr welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate,” said Alice Fisher, an attorney advising Burr, in a statement after the stink around his stock sales wafted across the landscape.
“The law is clear that any American — including a senator — may participate in the stock market based on public information, as Senator Burr did. “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.”
The fox, in other words, will look into the theft of eggs from the chicken coop.
Indeed, Burr appealed to the ethics committee the day after news of the stock sale broke.
“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13,” Burr said in a statement published on Twitter. (Where else?)
“Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency.”
In some ways, a lot of ways actually, this drip-drip-drip run of damning reports about the senator’s financial moves is puzzling.
Before coronavirus, Burr’s national profile amounted to that of a tight-lipped, fair-minded chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee. A few well-documented quirks — Burr famously doesn’t wear socks and drove for years a Volkswagen Thing — served to add a dash of personality to the public persona.
“Our kids went to the same schools. He’s a good guy,” an acquaintance of the senator’s told me in a recent conversation. “I feel bad for him. He’s screwed.”
Indeed, it would appear so. But for what?
Burr, we all know, was set to retire from Congress in 2022, at the end of his current term. He’s been in Congress, first as a U.S. representative and then as a senator, since 1995.
Senators, as we all know, are well compensated for their service with salaries of $174,000 per year, gold-plated health care and generous pension benefits. Even without the stock sale, he wasn’t strapped for cash.
Without the stink of scandal, Burr could have slipped quietly into the world of million-dollar lobbying and enjoyed that house in Nags Head in relative anonymity.
“Pandemic Profiteer” is a hell of an epitaph to a career in public service.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for him.