WASHINGTON – Sen. Richard Burr is stepping down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday, as an FBI investigation into Burr's stock sales led to the seizure of his cellphone by federal investigators.
A senior Justice Department 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 cell phone was later retrieved at the senator's home, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly.
The move required approval at the highest 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 crime has been committed.
As the investigation intensified, McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement that he and Burr agreed that it would be in "the bests interests" of the Intelligence Committee for Burr, R-N.C., 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.”
Burr's office declined comment Thursday.
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, R-N.C.; Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.; Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; their spouses or advisers sold stocks around the time lawmakers received briefings about the severity of the coronavirus, financial disclosure forms showed.So far, the federal criminal investigation appears to be focused on Burr.
At the time news reporting revealed the stock movements, the senators declined 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 Sen. Burr did," Burr's attorney, Alice Fisher, said at the end of March. "When this issue arose, Sen. 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. Sen. Burr welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate.”
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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.