Campaign check: Ossoff knocks Perdue’s stock trades amid pandemic

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. (right), and his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, made in-person campaign appearances in metro Atlanta on Saturday, October 10, 2020. (Photos: Steve Schaefer / Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. (right), and his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, made in-person campaign appearances in metro Atlanta on Saturday, October 10, 2020. (Photos: Steve Schaefer / Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The statement:

“Senator David Perdue profited from the pandemic, while he downplayed the risk — undermined doctors and scientists — compared coronavirus to the common flu.” -Jon Ossoff in ad released in October

What we found:

The eyes of the nation are on Georgia, where David Perdue, a one-term Republican, is locked in one of two high-stakes runoffs to determine which party narrowly controls the U.S. Senate. As the campaign proceeded through the fall and polls showed a tightening race, his Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff ramped up his attacks on Perdue for some stock trades that were made early in the year, just as the possible impact of the coronavirus coming into focus.

Perdue, one of the wealthier members of the U.S. Senate, has repeatedly said he has done nothing wrong. He also has said his stock trades are handled by independent advisers and without his input, although recent news reports by the New York Times and other news outlets indicate the senator has provided those advisers guidance, at least to some degree.

It is illegal to use nonpublic information gained as a company insider or member of Congress to make investment decisions. Perdue, through his campaign staff, says federal agents have looked at his recent stock trading and found no wrongdoing.

In late January, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported near Seattle on Jan. 20. Four days later, select members of Congress met behind closed doors for a coronavirus briefing. Perdue was not at that meeting, according to his campaign.

During this period, Reuters reported daily updates were being presented to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the worldwide spread of the virus. Perdue is not a member of that committee.

Still, his stock trades, between late January and mid-February, numbered nearly 100 and were well above his average. This included up to $245,000 in stock purchases in Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant that’s been racing to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, and up to $185,000 in stock of DuPont De Nemours, makers of personal protective equipment used to avoid exposure to the virus. In addition, he sold $165,000 in stocks for Caesar Entertainment, a major player in the casino industry that’s been hard hit by the pandemic.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his stock portfolio swelled in value by about $500,000 from December 2019 to April 2020, even though not all his trades appeared to capitalize on the pandemic. For example, he also made new investments in Disney and Delta Airlines, two companies that have not fared well in the pandemic, and sold stock in two now much-in-demand companies, Kroger grocery store chain and Proctor & Gamble, the maker of Mr. Clean, Comet, Swiffer and other top cleaning brands.

AJC Senate Watch: Checking candidates’ claims, answering readers’ questions

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The senator’s re-election campaign says that the Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission, and the bi-partisan Senate Ethics Committee cleared him. The proof his camp offers is an excerpt from a June 16 letter in which Deborah Sue Mayer, the Senate Ethics Committee’s chief counsel, wrote that the panel “did not find evidence that your actions violated federal law, Senate Rules, or standards of conduct” and considered the matter closed, the AJC reported. The campaign has not responded to repeated requests by The AJC for the entire letter.

PolitiFact reported that Perdue campaign spokesman, John Burke, said Ossoff’s claims had been debunked. PolitiFact also said last week that Perdue’s Nov. 30 campaign ad isn’t accurate.

“For one thing, there has been no public disclosure that the Senate Ethics committee investigated Perdue at all,” PolitiFact reported. Perdue’s ad also say he was “exonerated.” Federal law enforcement agencies generally decide to prosecute or not, rather than exonerate, the PolitiFact report said.

The Senate Ethics committee seldom finds fault members of the U.S. Senate, the AJC reported. “An analysis of the committee’s publicly available annual reports from 2007 through 2019 shows it received 1,189 complaints of alleged violations. Not one resulted in a disciplinary sanction, records show,” the AJC report said.

Last month, The New York Times reported that Perdue and other lawmakers were investigated by the Justice Department for possible insider trading related to investments they made early in the coronavirus spread. Investigators, according to the Times, found that an executive with Atlanta-based financial technology company Cardlytics had mistakenly sent an email in January to Perdue, a former company board member, that vaguely referenced coming changes to the company.

The Times reported that Perdue told one of his investment advisers, shortly after receiving the email, to sell $1 million worth of stock in Cardlytics, or about 20 percent of his holdings in the company — suggesting the senator could be more closely involved in his stock trades than previously indicated.

Perdue’s campaign says there is no contradiction. He had no control over how most stocks he held in individual companies was managed, a campaign strategist said.

Ossoff, who finished second to Perdue in the November general election, has said the stock trades are evidence that the Republican is a crook, though the senator has not been convicted of any crime. He also has called for reform measures requiring all members of Congress to place their stocks in blind trusts.

In his Oct. 2 ad, Ossoff accuses Perdue of downplaying the potential harm from the virus, comparing it to the common flu and saying, “We’ve had ordinary flu seasons with more deaths.” Perdue did make those statements.

But other parts of Perdue’s record also shows he did understand the gravity of the situation. In a public service announcement he made in late March, he said: “First of all, I know this virus is causing a lot of concern, and rightfully so. Let me assure you of this: the world’s best public health officials are right here in Georgia at the CDC. They’re working around the clock to help contain this virus and to develop a vaccine.”

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