March 6, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday after all, after initially scrapping the trip over concerns that a staffer at the agency had contracted the coronavirus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: In an economic free fall, wealth becomes a double-edged sword for Kelly Loeffler

We have wondered what politicking during a pandemic might look like. If Thursday night is any guide, who is able to survive the economic fallout -- and how they accomplish that survival -- will be a major factor.

At 8:49 p.m., the Daily Beast reported that U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., the chamber’s newest and richest member, had sold off stock holdings in the seven-figure range several days after “a private, all-senators meeting on the novel coronavirus that subsequently hammered U.S. equities.” From the Beast: 

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) reported the first sale of stock jointly owned by her and her husband on Jan. 24, the very day that her committee, the Senate Health Committee, hosted a private, all-senators briefing from administration officials, including the CDC director and Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the coronavirus.

From Loeffler’s Twitter account the same day:

Appreciate today’s briefing from the President’s top health officials on the novel coronavirus outbreak. These men and women are working around the clock to keep our country safe and healthy. #gapol

In its article, the Beast noted the day’s precedent:

Loeffler is the second known senator to sell off large stock holdings between that Jan. 24 briefing and the dramatic drop in stock-market indices over the last week. The Center for Responsive Politics reported on Thursday that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, sold between $500,000 and $1.5 million in stock in February, shortly before markets tanked—and before Burr privately warned of the havoc that coronavirus was poised to wreak.

In the wee hours this morning, your Washington-based Insider weighed in, adding U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., into the mix:

Georgia’s two U.S. senators bought and sold stocks during the same time they were receiving briefings on the coronavirus outbreak, leading to questions about whether they used inside information to guide their financial dealings.

U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler both were wealthy before they arrived on Capitol Hill, but there is new scrutiny surrounding financial decisions they and other members have made during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reaction has been swift. American Bridge, the progressive PAC, called for Loeffler’s resignation last night -- no surprise, given that Democrats would very much like to flip that Georgia seat. More interesting was the headline at Fox News, which has had a soft spot for U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who has also launched a challenge to Loeffler.

The Fox News headline sits over a video clip of Tucker Carlson, calling for Senator Burr to come clean about his $1.6 million stock sale or resign.

Both Perdue and Loeffler deny any wrong-doing and say third-party advisers make financial decisions on their behalf. 

In nearly 100 transactions, Perdue bought and sold stocks in roughly equal amounts. His sales fall anywhere between $148,050 to $995,000 and his purchases are in the range of $141,043 to $890,000. Among his new investments were stocks in Disney and Delta Airlines, companies that haven’t fared well during the outbreak.

Loeffler unloaded stocks at a much more rapid pace than she made purchases, taking money out of the market. From that AJC piece:

Loeffler, in tweets posted shortly after midnight, dismissed the criticism.

“This is a ridiculous and baseless attack,” she wrote. “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband's knowledge or involvement.” 

Loeffler said she wasn’t aware of transactions made in late January until Feb. 16, three weeks after they occurred.

Here’s the thing: Loeffler’s spouse, Jeff Sprecher, is a primary stakeholder in the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange. Trading stocks is kind of what they do. And Loeffler was appointed to that Senate seat in part because she could personally shoulder the burden of financing two statewide campaigns -- one in 2020 and another in 2022.

Further, she was appointed at a moment when the stock market was roaring -- busting records every other day -- a factor Republicans have been counting on to carry President Donald Trump and their party in November.

But the coronavirus pandemic has brought an end to the U.S. economic boom. Millions of older voters, who could be counted upon as reliable GOP voters, are watching their 401(k)s tank. They don’t have the option of bailing out of their plans. Even now, they’re being told to hang tight.

That is why this story may have legs.

***

In non-coronavirus news, you know that former Georgia congressman John Barrow would like to run for the Georgia Supreme Court seat that will be vacated by Justice Keith Blackwell on Nov. 18. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has cancelled that statewide election, which was set to occur May 19.

The reason? Despite the fact that Blackwell’s term expires on Dec. 31, by retiring early, Blackwell gives Gov. Brian Kemp the opportunity to fill the vacancy by appointment. Which would move the election for that seat to 2022.

Barrow, a Democrat, and former GOP state lawmaker Beth Beskin filed suit to require Raffensperger to re-open the contest, but a Fulton County judge has sided with the secretary of state in the matter.

Barrow’s attorneys plan to appeal, but are demanding that the entire bench of the Georgia Supreme Court recuse itself first. From Lester Tate, one of Barrow’s attorneys:

"This is a rare, but occasionally recurring situation. There is a procedure for dealing with it. Every Supreme Court confronting it before has done the right thing and I expect no less of the current Court."

Michael Moore, former US Atty for the Middle District of Georgia and a member of our team:

"This situation already looks like a group of insiders have determined that hand-selecting a justice and protecting a judicial pension is more important than protecting the people of Georgia’s right to vote.

“One way it could become even more obvious that it’s an insider game is for the sitting justices to hear a case directly involving someone they work with every day. That’s a little bit like asking the chickens in the henhouse to vote on whether one of them can keep its golden egg.”

***

Last night, the minority leader in the state House joined the chorus of politicians urging Gov. Brian Kemp to mandate business shutdowns to stem the spread of coronavirus. Republicans said his urgent plea reeked of hypocrisy. 

State Rep. Bob Trammell of Luthersville called on Kemp to follow Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ lead by imposing restrictions on restaurants, bars and other places where people congregate: 

“We need these measures ASAP on a statewide basis. They are consistent with CDC guidance, will slow the spread of the virus, and will save lives. Delay ultimately imperils all Georgians,” he said in a Tweet. 

John Porter, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s chief of staff, didn’t take kindly to his call. He pointed out that Trammell (along with House Republicans) on Monday pushed for an expiration date on Kemp’s broad emergency powers:

“Monday: @GAHouseDems complaining that certifying a public health emergency would give @GovKemp too much power. Thursday: @TrammellBob whining that @GovKemp is not exercising enough power. 

Partisan politics at its finest.”

Some context is required here. Last week, as the scope of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming clearer by the day, the state House and Senate had distinctly different reactions. From a piece in today’s print edition:

On March 10, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia began to mount, [House Speaker David] Ralston suspended the student page program, banned most guests and urged the public “in the strongest possible terms” to watch proceedings from afar.

The same day, Duncan sent out a statement saying the chamber would “be open for the people’s business” with no changes…

Duncan’s top aide, John Porter, said the lieutenant governor had no regrets about his decision to continue normal operations.

“I’m sure all of us will reflect back on this time and think of things they could have done better, different, sooner or later, etc.,” Porter said. “However, I’m 100 percent confident that all the decisions we’ve made regarding the operation of the Senate have been sound and arrived upon after thorough and careful deliberation.”

On Monday, State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, attended the special session called to ratify Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency powers during the pandemic -- despite his symptoms and the fact that he had submitted, on the previous Saturday, to a test for the virus. It came back positive this week, and the entire Legislature has now been advised to self-quarantine.

***

The second part of this dispatch on pandemic control from the Savannah Morning News may be more important than the first:

Tybee Island City Council has moved to close the island’s beaches and ban the open consumption of alcohol city wide.

***

Teresa Tomlinson, the two-term mayor of Columbus and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, a virtual town hall on Facebook Live along with retired CDC expert Dr. Jane Seward at 1 p.m. Saturday.

***

Calls for the U.S. embassy in Mexico to reverse its decision to stop processing visa applications are growing stronger, with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators now weighing in. 

Georgia’s two U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, signed onto the latest letter with members from several other states. They are asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, and Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia to reconsider the policy change implemented this week as an effort to protect staff and visitors from being exposed to or spreading the coronavirus. 

But suspension of the visa program comes just as farmers across America start their planting season, and many rely on guest workers for labor.

“Food security is national security,” the latest letter said. “We believe suspending visa services that our farmers rely on will be detrimental to families across our nation trying to put food on the table.”

Earlier this week, U.S. Reps. Doug Collins Austin Scott wrote a similar letter to Pompeo about the policy and its implications for Georgia. 

***

The All Voting is Local campaign, an advocacy initiative focused on protecting and expanding access for voters, now has a Georgia state director.

The hiring of Aklima Khondoker indicates the group’s expansion and increased presence in the state. All Voting Is Local is also operating in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

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