U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s most recent financial disclosures show that millions of dollars in stocks were sold on her behalf at the same time Congress was dealing with the impact of the coronavirus.
The largest transactions — and the most politically problematic — involve $18.7 million in sales of Intercontinental Exchange stock in three separate deals dated Feb. 26 and March 11. Loeffler is a former executive with ICE, and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, is the CEO of the company, which owns the New York Stock Exchange among other financial marketplaces.
During the same time period reflected on reports filed late Tuesday, the couple also sold shares in retail stores such as Lululemon and T.J. Maxx and invested in a company that makes COVID-19 protective garments. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got the first look at these reports, covering mid-February through mid-March and shedding new light on Loeffler's financial transactions during the pandemic. Previous reports — which have put Loeffler in the national spotlight — covered her trading during the first six weeks of 2020.
Loeffler provided the numbers to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they were more exact than what would appear on a federal campaign finance disclosure.
The newer stock sales came as the broader markets were diving, and they are likely to fuel allegations that Georgia's new senator used her insider knowledge about the severity of the pandemic to dump holdings while simultaneously releasing statements about the strength of the American economy and complimenting President Donald Trump on his response. The STOCK Act, a law that went into effect in 2012, makes it illegal for senators to use inside information for financial gain.
Loeffler and her staff have said she did nothing wrong. Her active portfolio reflects a woman of immense wealth who is confident in the market but also committed to following the rules, a spokeswoman said.
“Sen. Loeffler came to Washington on a promise to be a different kind of elected official,” Kerry Rom said. “She holds herself to high standards of ethics and transparency, including acting in accordance with both the letter and spirit of the law, which she has done at every step of her time in the Senate and in her lengthy career in financial services.”
Loeffler’s campaign said an investment firm manages the stocks she and her husband own and neither of them has control over the day-to-day decisions to buy or sell fractions of their vast fortune.
It's a defense Loeffler's team has been making for nearly two weeks as government watchdogs and political opponents criticize her investments. There have been calls for investigations and her resignation.
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The U.S. Department of Justice, in conjunction with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is looking into stock transactions by various lawmakers, CNN reported. That could include Loeffler, although her staff said recently that she has not been contacted.
Spokespeople for the Justice Department and the SEC both declined to comment. Investigations by the SEC are usually conducted in secret and not made public unless someone is accused of wrongdoing.
According to CNN, investigators have reached out to U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who along with Loeffler has faced widespread criticism about stock trading. Transactions made by U.S. Sens. David Perdue of Georgia, Dianne Feinstein of California and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma were also criticized, but to a lesser extent.
Chester Spatt, a professor of finance at Carnegie Mellon University, said all these senators could have avoided controversy by declining to buy or sell stocks in individual companies. Spatt, who served as an SEC economist from 2004 through 2007, said senators now must deal with the erosion of public confidence as a result of these transactions.
“This is why senators shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “The burden is on them to demonstrate they were not using insider information.”
Loeffler’s campaign said the ICE stock sales were prearranged and part of her and her husband’s compensation package. Records provided by the campaign show Loeffler and her husband exercised their employee options to buy ICE stock at a discounted rate, then sold much of it within a few weeks.
The campaign said the sales were to pay taxes, cover transaction costs and produce “liquidity.”
In Tuesday’s transaction report, the couple also sold $845,557 in stock from 13 companies and purchased $590,557 in stock from six companies.
Sprecher bought $206,774 in chemical giant DuPont de Nemours in four transactions in late February and early March. DuPont has performed poorly on Wall Street lately, but the company is a major supplier of desperately needed personal protective gear as the global pandemic strains hospital and first responders.
At the same time, the couple dumped $70,958 in stock from retail clothier Ross Stores and a similar sale of $27,580 in stock from the TJX Cos., the parent corporation for T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Sprecher also unloaded stock worth $56,693 in the upscale yoga clothier Lululemon in early March, just after the stock dipped from its all-time high.
The sales are consistent with Loeffler's earlier disclosures. She and her husband sold off some of the same retail stocks in late January. Because she is new to the Senate, Loeffler's public disclosures only go back to the beginning of the year, but much of the sell-off happened after a Jan. 24 senators-only briefing that resulted in Loeffler's public mention of the coronavirus.
Not every transaction tracks with the pandemic. In their most recent disclosure, the couple sold $111,486 in Facebook stock, which some investors might consider something to buy or hold since millions of Americans are stuck at home and on their social networks. Likewise, on Feb. 20, they liquidated $180,336 in shares of DocuSign, a tech company that manages electronic and remote signatures of documents. The sale was made when the stock reached its all-time high, but some advisers think the company is in prime position to weather an expected recession.
In addition, in early March Loeffler’s husband sold options worth $1.8 million in nine firms, including oil giants BP and Chevron, essentially betting the stock price of those firms would rise above the set price. Loeffler’s campaign said the optimistic approach indicates there was no improperly shared information about the severity of the crisis or the impact it would have on markets. Currently those options are trading at a loss of $132,140 for Sprecher.
Details of individual transactions are less important than the overall perception that senators were making investment decisions at the same time they were receiving private information about the coronavirus pandemic, said attorney Walter Jospin, who for three years served as director of the SEC's regional office in Atlanta. He said the senators, their spouses and advisers are likely to face questions about whether members shared private information or directed transactions.
Jospin is a donor to Democratic candidates and organizations.
“I have no idea whether these senators violated the federal securities laws,” he said. “I am sure that the SEC will conduct a full and fair investigation. With that said, these trades were, in the context of a worldwide health and economic crisis, certainly unseemly.”
Audience specialist Isaac Sabetai contributed to this report.
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