Health pick’s trades put STOCK Act in spotlight

Health pick’s trades put STOCK Act in spotlight
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE’s pick to lead his administration’s overhaul of the healthcare system is facing growing pressure over whether his portfolio and politics were too tightly mixed.

Senate Democrats are expected to grill Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) over whether his investment decisions were informed by his activities as a lawmaker who exerted significant influence over the nation’s health policy.

Price’s first hearing to be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will take place Wednesday.

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The Price story has also thrust into the spotlight a 2012 law that forbids members of Congress from personally profiting from private information obtained through their congressional work.

The Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act was one of the few bipartisan achievements of President Obama’s tenure. Of the 435 members in the House, 417 voted to pass it, including Price.

No lawmaker has faced insider trading charges since the law was approved, but it has given ammunition to Democrats eager to question Price’s trading activity.

Lawmakers have focused on a series of trades Price made in medical companies, oftentimes in close proximity to political activity that may have boosted their profits.

Democrats have gone so far as to call for Price’s confirmation hearing to be delayed until ethics investigators have had a chance to review the activity.

Sens. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMan who threatened to kill Obama, Maxine Waters faces up to 20 years in prison Gillibrand defends her call for Franken to resign Gillibrand: Aide who claimed sexual harassment was 'believed' MORE (D-Minn.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump on 2020 Dems skipping AIPAC: 'I think they're anti-Jewish' The Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game 2020 Dems avoid this year's AIPAC conference MORE (D-Mass.) and Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinOn The Money: Trump issues emergency order grounding Boeing 737 Max jets | Senate talks over emergency resolution collapse | Progressives seek defense freeze in budget talks Dems offer bill to end tax break for investment-fund managers Bipartisan think tank to honor lawmakers who offer 'a positive tenor' MORE (D-Wis.) said Tuesday that Price’s confirmation should not go forward until an ethics probe has determined no wrongdoing was committed.

“Allowing Congressman Price's nomination to move to a hearing with questions about his ethical qualifications left unanswered would send an early, clear, and deeply troubling signal that the Senate's critical oversight functions will be given a back seat to the demands of the Trump Administration,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter Wednesday to Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderGOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight Overnight Health Care: Senators seek CBO input on preventing surprise medical bills | Oversight panel seeks OxyContin documents | Pharmacy middlemen to testify on prices | Watchdog warns air ambulances can put patients at 'financial risk' Trump signs executive order on campus free speech MORE (R-Tenn.), who chairs the committee vetting Price.

Even if the hearing is not delayed, Democrats are making clear that Price’s personal trading will be a central focus of their attacks when he appears.

For its part, the Trump transition team has backed Price and dismissed the questions as partisan attacks aimed at derailing a pick central to the ObamaCare fight.

“Any effort to connect the introduction of bipartisan legislation by Dr. Price to any campaign contribution is demonstrably false,” said Phil Blando, a transition spokesman. “The only pattern we see emerging is that Senate Democrats and their liberal media allies cannot abide the notion that Dr. Tom Price is uniquely qualified to lead HHS and will stop at nothing to smear his reputation.”

The STOCK Act does not actually place stricter insider trading rules against members of Congress and their staff. Rather, the 2012 law beefs up disclosure requirements for financial trades and makes explicit that lawmakers and top executive branch officials are subject to those laws, just as other investors would be.

The Trump transition has defended Price’s trades, arguing they were not directed by Price but rather done by his broker as part of a normal portfolio realignment.

For example, CNN reported Monday that Price purchased between $1,000 and $15,000 in stock in a medical device company, Zimmer Biomet, and then days later introduced legislation that would delay a federal rule to the benefit of just such a company.

Zimmer Biomet also went on to contribute $2,000 to Price’s congressional campaign. There have also been additional reports that have connected some trading by Price in medical stock to political activity in similar sectors.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis Schumer4 in 5 Americans say they support net neutrality: poll GOP senator: Trump's criticism of McCain 'deplorable' Schumer to introduce bill naming Senate office building after McCain amid Trump uproar MORE (D-N.Y.) has seized on the reports, telling CNN Tuesday it “could very well be a violation of the law.”

“This is not some broad legislation. ... This is a very narrow, specific company that dealt with implants,” he told CNN Tuesday. “And the legislation specifically affects implants. He puts it in a week after he buys the stock?”

The Trump transition says that stock was purchased by Price’s broker as part of dozens of transactions, and was done without his knowledge. Trump officials also noted that the $2,697.74 in company stock that Price purchased in March had gained less than $300 in value since then.

Transition officials have also noted that some Democrats, including Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Kushner accused of using WhatsApp, personal email for official work | White House rejects request for Trump-Putin communications | Facebook left 'hundreds of millions' of passwords unsecured | Tech pressured to root out extremism Lawmakers urge tech to root out extremism after New Zealand Dems request probe into spa owner suspected of trying to sell access to Trump MORE (D-Va.) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDems introduce bill requiring disclosure of guest logs from White House, Trump properties Sanders announces first staff hires in Iowa, New Hampshire McConnell works to freeze support for Dem campaign finance effort MORE (D-R.I.) have also traded in medical stocks. Both those senators have defended the trading activity, calling them the work of their own independent advisers.

Some ethics experts argue that while the circumstances alone do not prove any wrongdoing, they could merit a closer look.

“It seems curious that he’d be introducing legislation that is seen as benefiting a few companies, and his broker just happens to buy stock,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that encourages strict enforcement of campaign finance laws. “Effectively what they’re saying is that it’s just a coincidence. He seems to have had these coincidences before.”