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Senator Richard Burr's phone seized in FBI insider trading investigation

Search warrant issued to Senator Burr
Search warrant issued to Senator Richard Burr in connection to stock sales 02:15

FBI agents have seized the cellphone of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a ranking Republican from North Carolina, as part of an investigation into his stock sales, a U.S. official tells CBS News. Burr and his wife sold between $600,000 and $1.7 million in stocks over 30 transactions from late January through mid-February, before the stock market plunged and as warnings about a coronavirus pandemic grew more severe.

Burr is stepping aside as chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the investigation. He told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, "This is a distraction to the hard work of the committee and the members, and I think the security of the country is too important to have a distraction."

A senior Justice Department official said Thursday that the warrant was served on Burr's lawyer, and the phone was picked up from Burr's home. A U.S. official familiar with the investigation tells CBS News that Burr was cooperative Wednesday night when FBI agents went to his residence to collect the phone. Asked about the interaction, Burr said Thursday that "everybody ought to let this investigation play out," and he said that he has been cooperating with the investigation "since the beginning."

As a matter of process, the warrant would have needed approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department, and it received that approval, the Justice Department official said.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the seizure of Burr's phone.

Several of the stocks sold were in companies that own hotels, an industry that has been decimated by the coronavirus. The bulk of Burr's stock sales took place February 13, just before he made a speech predicting extreme measures would have to be taken to check the spread of the virus, including closing schools and cutting company travel, according to audio obtained by National Public Radio.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr leaves the Republican weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill June 4, 2019, in Washington.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr. Getty

At the time, President Trump was suggesting there was little to fear from the virus — there were under 50 cases in the U.S., and he was speculating that the heat in April might just "kill this kind of virus."

A week earlier, on February 7, Burr coauthored an opinion piece with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander that offered reassuring words for Americans concerned about the coronavirus. 

"Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration," he and Alexander wrote.

No indications have emerged publicly to suggest Burr had inside information when he sold the stocks and issued the private warnings in his speech in mid-February. 

A spokesperson told CBS News in March that Burr, "filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak."

It's illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks based on information the public doesn't have that they receive through their positions as lawmakers. Burr was among only three senators who voted against the legislation banning such trading in 2012.

Burr has defended the transactions and said he "relied solely on public news reports" to guide his decision "regarding the sale of stocks on February 13." He has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to open a review of the matter.

Andres Triay, Clare Hymes and Alan He contributed to this report.

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