FBI Executes A Search Warrant On Sen. Richard Burr, Takes His Cellphone The FBI has executed a search warrant on Sen. Richard Burr on Wednesday, taking his cellphone as part of the investigation into his stock sales in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

FBI Executes A Search Warrant On Sen. Richard Burr, Takes His Cellphone

FBI Executes A Search Warrant On Sen. Richard Burr, Takes His Cellphone

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The FBI has executed a search warrant on Sen. Richard Burr on Wednesday, taking his cellphone as part of the investigation into his stock sales in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is stepping aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This decision comes shortly after the FBI seized Burr's cellphone. These developments are a part of the federal investigation into the senator's well-timed stock transactions that he made before the market plummeted when the pandemic hit. And joining us now with more is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let's start with the FBI seizing Burr's cellphone. This seems like a pretty big step. What do we know about this development?

LUCAS: My sources tell me that the FBI served a warrant on Burr's lawyer for the senator's cellphone. I'm told that the phone was with Burr at his Washington home, and he handed it over to agents yesterday. The LA Times broke this story last night. Now, getting a search warrant like this is a big deal. It means that the FBI got a judge to sign off on it, which means that agents could show probable cause that a federal crime has indeed been committed and an expectation that there is evidence of that crime on that specific phone. As a former federal prosecutor told me today, it's not good for you if the feds get a search warrant for your phone.

CHANG: No, it is not. And I imagine internally at the Justice Department, the decision to seize the cellphone of the target of an investigation needs approval at a very high level.

LUCAS: Well, in the case of a sitting senator, certainly. This is - as you said, this is a very sensitive matter. And actually, a senior Justice Department official has told me that this was indeed approved at the highest levels of the Justice Department. This also likely means that investigators had more than enough material to show probable cause because you're unlikely to take something like this to the very highest levels of the department for signoff if you think you can only squeak by on the merits.

CHANG: Interesting. OK. Well, we have been seeing that the FBI has been looking into Burr's stock transactions. Can you explain, what exactly are they looking at?

LUCAS: So this is an insider trading case that the FBI opened several weeks ago. And it followed reports, including by NPR, about market transactions that Burr made earlier this year. In mid-February, he sold stocks worth up to $1.7 million, according to Senate financial disclosures. That was an unusually large sell-off for Burr, and it attracted attention, and it did so for several reasons.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr was reportedly receiving regular briefings related to the coronavirus in the run up to his sell-off. ProPublica has reported that Burr's brother-in-law also made significant sales around the same time. And this was right before the markets tanked because of the pandemic. This has all raised questions of whether Burr was using nonpublic information about the outbreak that he got as a senator when making these sales.

CHANG: And what has Senator Burr said about all of this so far?

LUCAS: So when this all first surfaced, he denied any wrongdoing, and he asked the Senate Ethics Committee to take a look at his financial dealings. Burr was on the Hill today. He was asked by reporters about the search warrant and his phone. He said this is part of the investigation, that he is cooperating and that everybody should just let this all play out.

At the same time, he did announce that he's stepping aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That's a powerful position in charge of a panel that conducts oversight of the intelligence community, including parts of the FBI that work on national security. Here's a bit of what Burr said as to why he's stepping back.

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RICHARD BURR: 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.

CHANG: But to be clear, this isn't just about Burr. I mean, other senators have also come under scrutiny, right? Like, investigators are also looking into stock sales by Kelly Loeffler, a Republican from Georgia, and Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. Any updates on those fronts?

LUCAS: Well, those two lawmakers did make sales that have attracted scrutiny. A spokesman for Feinstein says the FBI contacted her last month. She answered questions. They have now moved on. As for Loeffler, a spokesperson declined today to say whether she talked with federal investigators but said she hadn't received a warrant.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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