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Tillis says Burr should explain townhouse sale
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Tillis says Burr should explain townhouse sale

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Another political controversy involving Richard Burr has spilled over onto Thom Tillis, his U.S. Senate junior colleague from North Carolina.

A day after ProPublica posted a report on questions about Burr’s 2017 sale of a townhouse in Washington to a high-profile lobbyist, Tillis was asked for his response Wednesday by conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt.

Hewitt specifically asked if Tillis thought Burr should step down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Hewitt backs such a move, saying “I have no confidence in him until this is done.”

Tillis’ response — that Burr owes North Carolinians an explanation and that the chairmanship is up to Republican Senate leaders — was the same one he gave when ProPublica reported March 19 on Burr’s stock sales before the stock market began its sharp decline in February. ProPublica is an online investigative news outlet.

“We’ll see where the investigation goes,” Tillis said.

The Washington Post reported that “regardless how the investigation unfolds, Burr is expected to step down as Intelligence Committee chairman at the end of the year due to GOP term limits in the Senate.”

Tillis’ previous comments on Burr’s stock sales developed into an intriguing twist Wednesday when The Thom Tillis Committee reported in a quarterly Federal Elections Commission filing that it accepted a $2,800 donation from U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R–Ga., on March 3.

There have been calls on social media for Loeffler to also resign for her own stock selling leading up to the Feb. 20 beginning of the stock-market plunge.

Loeffler, who was sworn into office Jan. 6, and her husband sold more than $1 million worth of stock in 29 separate transactions — 27 sell and two buy — following a joint Jan. 24 Senate Health and Foreign Relations committee briefing on coronavirus.

Loeffler has said in media interviews that she had financial advisers making buy and sell stock trade moves for her.

“If Thom Tillis thinks Richard Burr owes everyone an explanation over his insider trading, surely he thinks his maxed-out donor Kelly Loeffler owes her constituents the same explanation over her insider trading,” said Zach Hudson, spokesman for left-leaning advocacy group American Bridge.

“Thom Tillis needs to put his money where his mouth is and return Kelly Loeffler’s check. Otherwise, he is bankrolling his campaign off the profits from Loeffler’s shady stock deals.”

Tillis’ remarks on Burr also drew criticism from his Democratic challenger in 2020, Cal Cunningham.

“Once again, Thom Tillis has proven he’s not only too weak to stand up to his own party, but also that he’d rather punt tough decisions to ‘leadership’ instead of stepping up to lead himself,” Cunningham said in a tweet. “North Carolina deserves better.”

ProPublica reported Tuesday that Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, sold the town house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood to pharmaceutical lobbyist John Green and a business partner.

The sales price was $900,000 — an amount “tens of thousands of dollars above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real estate website and a local real estate agent,” ProPublica reported.

“There is no evidence that Green tried to influence Burr’s actions as a senator or discussed any legislation with him specifically,” ProPublica said.

But if the town house was sold for more than fair-market value, the transaction could be considered as a gift from a lobbyist, which typically would not be allowed under U.S. Senate ethics rules. And even if a gift is allowed, it typically must be publicly disclosed.

A Public Policy Polling poll released March 24 found that half of North Carolinians say Burr should resign as U.S. senator following two COVID-19-related developments. About 24% said he should remain in office.

Burr has been facing pressure following March 18 disclosures by NPR that he gave a stark warning about COVID-19 at a Feb. 27 private event, comments that he had not repeated publicly.

Burr’s comments carry significant weight in part because he is author of the federal Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006.

U.S. Senate financial-disclosure documents showed Burr and his wife, Brooke, sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his stock holdings in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13, a week before the stock market began its sharp decline. The publication Roll Call listed his net worth at $1.7 million as of 2018.

CNN reported on March 29 that Burr is facing potential federal investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission into the stock sales.

A Wyndham Hotels and Resorts shareholder has sued Burr in federal court, accusing him of committing securities fraud. Alan Jacobson’s lawsuit claims Burr “exploited material information unavailable to the public ... for his personal gain.” There have been no lawsuit developments since the March 23 filing.

Burr took to social media March 19 for an eight-part Twitter response to denounce as “a tabloid-style hit piece” NPR’s report. Burr has not responded on Twitter about the townhouse sale.

On March 20, Burr released a statement on the stock selling saying, “I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on Feb. 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.”

“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,” the statement said.

Casey Wilkinson, executive director for public-health advocacy group Piedmont Rising, said that “a Senate Ethics Committee review is simply not enough, and neither are vague calls for accountability.”

“The best way to ensure accountability now is for Senator Tillis to put aside partisan loyalties and call for a federal investigation into Senator Burr’s disturbing and potentially illegal actions.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

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