Loeffler under fire for stock trades amid coronavirus outbreak

Greg Nash

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) is under fire amid revelations that she unloaded seven-figures worth of stocks after a private Senate briefing on the coronavirus outbreak.

Loeffler, who’s running for reelection in a must-win state for Republicans, has forcefully denied any wrongdoing, calling the suggestion that she used insider information to guide her investments “baseless and false.”

She and her husband Richard Sprecher, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, have said that the trades were made by third-party investment managers without their knowledge.

But the stock sales on Jan. 24, the same day that Trump administration officials briefed senators on the novel coronavirus outbreak, threaten a blow to her already-competitive special election campaign and are already fueling attacks from her political rivals.

“People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain? I’m sickened just thinking about it,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who’s challenging Loeffler for her seat, tweeted on Friday morning.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat running for Loeffler’s seat, accused the Georgia senator of safeguarding her own interests while “the coronavirus pandemic is busy taking lives and livelihoods.”

Loeffler, a former financial sector executive, is also facing calls to resign from the liberal super PAC American Bridge and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed an ethics complaint against Loeffler on Friday, alleging a possible violation of a 2012 law cracking down on insider trading by members of Congress.

Loeffler, who was appointed late last year to fill the seat of former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), is facing challenges from a handful of rivals in the November special election, including Collins, a steadfast ally of President Trump who has sought to capitalize on lingering skepticism of Loeffler among some Georgia conservatives.

Under the state’s current rules, there will not be partisan primaries to determine the Republican and Democratic nominees in the November election.

Instead, candidates from all parties will appear on the same ballot — a process known as a jungle primary. If no candidate scores at least 50 percent of the vote, it will trigger a runoff election, currently slated for January 2021.

Loeffler has the backing of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). She and Collins are running neck and neck in the Georgia special Senate election. A University of Georgia poll released earlier this month showed Collins leading Loeffler in the race by less than 2 percentage points — well within the survey’s margin of error.

Likewise, a survey from the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies released late last month showed Loeffler leading Collins by a single percentage point.

The criticism of Loeffler comes as several other senators face similar scrutiny for selling off major holdings in the wake of the January coronavirus briefing, including Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Feinstein and Inhofe have said that they were not present for the briefing. Burr has denied any wrongdoing and has claimed that he made his investment decisions based on public news reports. He asked the Senate Ethics Committee on Friday to investigate his stock trading history.

Loeffler and her husband sold off stocks worth between $1,275,000 and $3,100,000 in the period from Jan. 24 through Feb. 14. That represents only a small portion of her estimated $500 million net worth.

In an interview on CNBC on Friday, she said that he had nothing to do with the trades, noting that they were “completely discretionary” and made “at the decision of our investment managers.” Loeffler also said she was willing to submit to a review of her stock trades, insisting that she had always followed “the letter and the spirit of the law.”

“I’m happy to answer any and all questions and would submit to whatever review is needed,” she said.

Still, the trades — which came during a period in which Trump and other Republicans were downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus — have fueled allegations that Loeffler and others sought to benefit financially from information about the outbreak just before the U.S. market plunged.

Multiple Republican operatives and strategists said it was too early to tell whether Loeffler would suffer politically for the stock trades, but acknowledged that the optics of the situation would provide fodder for her rivals and critics.

“Obviously, it doesn’t help her. Doug’s going to get all the mileage out of it that he can,” said Jay Williams, a longtime Georgia Republican strategist, referring to Collins.

“The fact that she was so aggressive in her response in my opinion shows how serious this thing could be for her campaign,” he said. “She knows it’s a big deal. She’s got to put the kibosh on it or she could be in trouble. It could be devastating for her.”

But some Republican operatives cautioned against using Loeffler’s stock trades against her at a time when much of the nation is focused squarely on withstanding the coronavirus outbreak.

“Nothing’s rippling the water right now,” said Chuck Clay, a former Georgia state senator and Republican Party chairman, adding that it would be “a foolish waste of money” for Collins to attack Loeffler in a time of national crisis.

But, Clay added: “if you want to weave a tale down the way of the disconnected rich — the ‘haves vs. the have-nots’ — this is a piece of that.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Doug Collins James Inhofe Johnny Isakson Kelly Loeffler Richard Burr

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