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Senators Sold Stocks Before Coronavirus Threats Crashed Market

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  • U.S. Senator Richard Burr has faced public scrutiny after records revealed that he sold thousands of dollars worth of stock prior to the market’s crash in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Burr was also reported to have warned a small party of the severity of the issue while the Trump administration was delivering a much more relaxed message to the rest of the nation.  
  • Several other U.S. senators including Kelly Loeffler, Dianne Feinstein, and James Inhofe also made stock sales prior to the escalation of the U.S. health crisis.
  • Some are concerned that the lawmakers might have exploited their early access to special information by selling stocks, but all have denied this is the case.   
  • Amid criticisms, Burr invited the Senate Ethics Committee to review his sales to promote full transparency.

Burr in Hot Water

Several U.S. Senators have come under fire after public records revealed they sold personal stocks just before the market crashed under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.

Documents show that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and his wife sold hundreds of thousands worth of stocks in 33 separate transactions in mid-February. Collectively the stocks were worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million, but exact numbers are not clear as the records display the transactions in ranges. Some of the stocks sold were holdings in a hotel and resort line that has since lost two-thirds of its value. 

Just days before Burr made these transactions, he wrote an op-ed for Fox News saying that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” 

Burr serves as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a position in which he receives regular briefings on safety threats to the country. According to Reuters, the committee was getting updates about the outbreak on a daily basis around the time Burr sold his stocks. Senate aides told NBC that the reports the committee received in January and February included non-public information about the coronavirus that remains classified. 

On Feb. 27, two weeks after Burr sold his stocks, he spoke to a small, nonpartisan group at a social club in Washington, D.C. delivering a concerning message. 

“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” he said, according to a recording obtained by NPR. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

The same day, Donald Trump downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 to the rest of the country, saying, “it’s going to disappear.” 

“It could get worse before it gets better,” Trump said on Feb. 27. “It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”

NPR reported that among the attendees at the luncheon where Burr spoke were companies and organizations that contributed to Burr’s election campaign several years ago.

On his Twitter page, Burr called the NPR story a “tabloid-style hit piece.” He addressed the accusations in a string of tweets, saying the luncheon was held by the North Carolina State Society.

“It was publicly advertised and widely attended,” Burr wrote on Thursday. “NPR knew, but did not report, that attendees also included many non-members, bipartisan congressional staff, and representatives from the governor’s office.”  

“Every state has a state society. They aren’t ‘secretive’ or ‘high-dollar donor’ organizations,” Burr added. “They’re great civic institutions that bring people in D.C. together for events, receptions, and lunches.”

Burr’s representatives also addressed the criticism he has faced.

“Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years,” spokesperson Caitlin Carroll told NBC. “His message has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack.”

Carroll also addressed Burr’s stock sales. 

“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” Carroll said.

More Senators Under Fire

Burr was not the only one to sell big stocks right before the market dropped. According to public records, a handful of other senators did the same. 

Records reveal that Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and her husband, a chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, reported millions of dollars worth of stock sales across 27 transactions beginning at the end of January. Loeffler began selling stock on Jan. 24, the day she was apart of a Senate Health Committee private briefing with updates on the coronavirus.

Like Burr, Loeffler sold sales in companies that have suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, she and her husband bought between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in a teleworking software company that has spiked in value as more citizens are working remotely.

“I want to set the record straight: This is a ridiculous & baseless attack,” Loeffler wrote in a tweet. “I don’t make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”

On Jan. 27, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) sold as much as $400,000 worth of stock in multiple companies including Apple, PayPal, and a real estate company. In two separate transactions on Jan. 31 and Feb. 18, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and her husband sold $1.5 million to $6 million worth of stock in a bio-technology company. Feinstein also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Inhofe and Feinstein’s financial moves seem to be routine. Both have said their investments are made without their involvement and noted they were not at the Senate Health Committee briefing on Jan. 24.

“Reports that I sold any assets are incorrect, as are reports that I was at a Jan. 24 briefing on coronavirus, which I was unable to attend,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Under Senate rules, I report my husband’s financial transactions. I have no input into his decisions. My husband in January and February sold shares of a cancer therapy company. This company is unrelated to any work on the coronavirus and the sale was unrelated to the situation.”

Calls for Resignation

Under the STOCK act, it is illegal for members of Congress to participate in trading based on nonpublic information. After the recent reports came out yesterday, multiple figures questioned the ethics of Sen. Burr’s stock sales and called upon him to step down from his position. 

Texas Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro addressed the controversy on Twitter.

“As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know that our committee receives sensitive information, including assessments and projections, before others in Congress and the general public (if ever),” Castro wrote. “Sen. Burr should suspend his chairmanship pending investigation.”

Fox News Host Tucker Carlson made fiery remarks about Burr during his show on Thursday night. 

“He dumped his shares in hotel stocks so he wouldn’t lose money, and then he stayed silent,” Carlson said. “Maybe there is an honest explanation for what he did. If there is, he should share it with us immediately. Otherwise, he must resign from the Senate and face prosecution for insider trading.”

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also called for Burr’s resignation.

“Burr knew how bad it would be. He told the truth to his wealthy donors, while assuring the public that we were fine,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “THEN he sold off $1.6 million in stock before the fall. He needs to resign.”

Several hours later, AOC reiterated a similar message about Sen. Loeffler, calling for her resignation as well. 

“It is stomach-churning that the first thoughts these Senators had to a dire & classified #COVID briefing was how to profit off this crisis,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Burr’s Call For Investigation

On Friday, in the midst of all the backlash, Burr said that he made a request to the Senate Ethics Committee to review his recent transactions.

“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision on the sale of stocks February 13,” Burr said in a statement Friday morning. “Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.” 

“Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency,” Burr added. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (NBC) (Los Angeles Times)

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Federal Court Orders Immigration Officers to Stop Enforcing Trump’s Asylum Ban

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  • On Tuesday, a U.S. Circuit Judge in D.C. ruled that the Trump administration’s third-country asylum rule is illegal.
  • That rule went into effect last year and bars immigrants from claiming asylum in the United States if they pass through another country on their way to the U.S.
  • In his decision, Judge Timothy Kelly said the administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act by not giving Americans enough time and opportunity to weigh in on policy changes. 
  • On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security ordered asylum officers to stop applying the policy for new applicants, as well as those currently awaiting a decision.

Judge Rules Third-Country Asylum Rule Illegal

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday ordered asylum officers to stop applying a controversial asylum policy meant to greatly diminish the number of migrants seeking refuge at the United States’ southern border.

The announcement came a day after Timothy J. Kelly, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that the policy is illegal. 

The policy, imposed by the Trump administration in July 2019, was aimed predominantly at Central Americans crossing through “third” countries to get to the U.S. border. For example, to get to the U.S. from Guatemala, migrants would first need to cross through Mexico.

Under that policy, if a migrant crossed through Mexico to get to the U.S. border, they would not be able to immediately qualify for asylum. In fact, to be able to even potentially qualify for U.S. asylum, they would first have to apply for and be denied asylum in Mexico.

Immigrant nonprofits and asylum seekers argued that the rule violated a number of laws, including the Immigration and Nationality Act. That act generally allows anyone arriving to the U.S. to apply for asylum, though there are some exceptions for people with criminal records.

In his ruling, Kelly didn’t give a decision either way on the Immigration and Nationality Act. Instead, he agreed with immigrant rights groups that the Trump administration violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which requires that Americans be given ample time and opportunity to voice their opinions on policy changes. 

In fact, Kelly ruled that the administration also gave an insufficient explanation as to why it didn’t allow the public to see and comment on a draft of the policy before it was enacted.

For its part, the Trump administration argued that it didn’t give advance notice of the third-country requirement because that would have triggered a surge of applicants seeking to evade the rule before it took effect. 

However, Kelly said almost all of the government’s argument was based on one newspaper article from October 2018. That article suggests that when the Trump administration ended its policy of separating immigrant families at the border, the proportion of asylum seekers with children increased.

“There are many circumstances in which courts appropriately defer to the national security judgments of the Executive,” Kelly said in his decision. “But determining the scope of an APA exception is not one of them.” 

This is not the first time Trump’s third-country restriction has been halted. Last July, a federal judge in San Francisco entered a preliminary injunction against the ban because of a “mountain” of evidence suggesting migrants couldn’t safely seek asylum in Mexico. In September, the Supreme Court then reversed that injunction and allowed the administration to keep enforcing the policy.

Praise From Immigrant Rights Groups

Following this ruling, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt praised Kelly’s decision.

“The court properly recognized that the Trump administration has once again skipped important steps mandated by Congress to ensure transparency and input from the public,” Gelernt said. “This is yet another instance in which this administration has sought to bypass Congress where the lives of asylum seekers are at stake.” 

Human Rights First executive Hardy Vieux also praised the outcome, saying that Kelly’s ruling “is proof that the administration cannot do an end-run around the law. In the United States of America, we follow the rule of law, even when it benefits asylum-seekers demonized by this administration.” 

Conversely, the Justice Department stressed that Kelly’s ruling was “a matter of procedural mechanics.”

“It was not a ruling on the substance of the asylum policy,” an official added.

That much seems to be backed up by the basis of Kelly’s ruling, which was made because the Trump administration failed to follow procedure when announcing the policy. Therefore, the administration will likely try to appeal this decision.

Impact of New Ruling May Be Limited

The order handed down from DHS on Wednesday applies not only to new asylum applicants but also to applicants waiting to receive their final decisions.

Still, even as Kelly noted in his decision on Tuesday, the impact of this ruling appears to be limited—at least for now. That’s because DHS has already been turning away thousands of asylum seekers at the border. 

Those restrictions began earlier this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak. In May, the Trump administration then extended the measure indefinitely, arguing that the move was necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In fact, according to The Washington Post, between March 21 and May 13, the U.S. granted asylum to just two people.

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NBC News) (The Los Angeles Times)

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Despite Limited Polling Stations, Kentucky Is On Track for Record-Breaking Voter Turnout

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  • Kentucky’s state primary is on track to see the highest voter turnout of any primary in the sate’s history, despite the fact the polling locations were slashed by 95%.
  • During a normal election, there are around 3,700 polling locations, but on Tuesday less than 200 were open because of coronavirus precautions.
  • Jefferson County, where Louisville is located, had one polling location for 600,000 voters. Because many of the state’s Black voters live there, some called it an attempt at voter suppression.

High Turnout Despite Limited Locations

Despite hiccups in big cities and incredibly limited polling stations, Kentucky is on track to see its highest voter turnout for a primary election, with Secretary of State Michael Adams projecting that over 1 million ballots were cast.

Prior to this, Kentucky’s largest primary turnout was in 2008 when the state saw 922,000 voters. In 2016, 670,000 voters turned out.

Adams released a statement saying that Tuesday’s election “offered the nation a model for success in conducting an election during a pandemic.” However, not everyone agrees with this.

The state slashed polling locations by 95%, going from 3,700 stations in a regular election to just under 200. Stations were limited due to fear over the coronavirus, but many thought it left the state’s voters with few options.

Much of the state’s Black population lives in  Jefferson County, where Louisville is located. That county was left with just one polling location for its over 600,000 registered voters. Lexington, the second-largest city in the state, was also just left with one polling station. 

Leading up to the election, the choice to limit voting locations so drastically was met with criticism from many politicians who saw this as a tactic of voter suppression that would disproportionately impact Black voters. 

“Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs & Jim Crow. It’s closed polling sites + 6 hr waits w/o pay. COVID is no excuse,” said Georgia’s former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“We must make it easier to vote—not harder,” Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted. “Our job is to fight racist voter suppression everywhere.”

Issues in Lexington and Louisville

Though turnout was strong, voters still saw a variety of issues. Voters in Lexington reported waiting in lines over an hour long. In Louisville, voters saw other issues like parking traffic, and the city’s sole polling station at the Kentucky Exposition Center locking its doors right as polls closed at 6:00 PM.

According to Joe Sonka, a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, around 50 people were outside when the doors were locked. Voters eventually started banging on doors, demanding to be let in, as traffic made them slightly late to the location. 

The Courier-Journal spoke to Don Hardison, a voter who was left outside. He told the paper that he spent 45 minutes in traffic before he could park.

“It’s our constitutional right that is being infringed on right now. I think it’s disingenuous at best that this is the only polling place in Jefferson County,” Hardison said. “It’s not (a) coincidence that this is a large urban population.”

It was not long until those voters were let inside the Exposition Center to vote. Charles Booker, a candidate for the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination, encouraged the voters to stay in line while he filed an injunction. Booker asked that the polls stay open until 9:00 PM, but the judge granted just a 30 minute extentsion.

According to CNN, this allowed another 100 voters to cast their ballots. Amy McGrath, who is running against Booker for the Democratic nomination, later tweeted that she was filing for the polls to stay open even later.

However, nothing more than the initial 30-minute extension was granted. 

Results to be Called June 30

Results for Kentucky’s primary are still being counted. Many counties, including Jefferson County, have no results yet. The state also saw an influx of absentee voting. Over 800,000 were requested, and over 500,000 were received by Tuesday, with more on the way.

The races are expected to be called on June 30, when more of those absentee ballots are in. As of Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times projected that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, was well ahead of Sen. Sanders for the presidential race. 

The race between McGrath and Booker, which is more highly anticipated, is much closer. McGrath appeared to be around 8% ahead of Booker by Wednesday, though too few votes are in to call. The winner of this race will face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.

See what others are saying: (Courier-Journal) (CBS News) (NPR)

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Trump Suspends Multiple Work Visas That Could Have Allowed up to 525,000 to Work in the U.S.

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  • President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday suspending multiple visa programs that allow foreign workers to enter the country. 
  • Notably, those suspensions will affect high-skilled tech workers, many healthcare professionals, students on work-study, and international business workers. 
  • Some of those visas exist as lottery systems, but the Trump administration wants to restructure them so that only the highest-paid applicants receive visas.
  • Additionally, the Trump administration is also moving to prevent asylum seekers who illegally cross the border from receiving work authorization in the United States.

Trump Suspends Multiple Work Visas

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday that extends a halt on the issuing of green cards and now suspends several visa programs until the end of the year.

It’s a move that officials said could keep as many as 525,000 workers out of the country for the rest of the year.

In April, Trump signed an order suspending the issuance of green cards to most foreigners for 60 days. At the time, he said the order was a response to the “invisible enemy” (COVID-19) and “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”

Trump stopped short of any broader immigration ban, but with this green card suspension having been set to expire on Monday, Trump sought to change that.

When suspending those visa programs Monday, Trump reiterated his original arguments, saying that these suspensions will ensure Americans are first in line for scarce jobs.

“Under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” Trump said of the coronavirus in the order.

Who Will These Suspensions Affect?

Most notably, visa program H-1B was suspended in the executive order. That program includes a variety of skilled worker positions such as computer programmers for big tech companies.

Another visa program that is now suspended is known as H-2B. That suspension will affect seasonal workers like those in the hospitality industry; however, it won’t affect farm workers or workers in the food processing industry.

While some medical workers can also get an exemption for H-2B, that’s going to be a narrow window only allowed if they’re specifically conducting coronavirus research.

Additionally, J-1 short-term exchange visas are being suspended. Those include university students on work-study summer programs as well as au pairs who provide childcare. Professors and other scholars are not included in the order, and there will be a provision to request some exemptions.

Still, some critics have noted that even if a person is eligible to potentially apply for an exemption, there’s no assurance they’ll be approved for one.

The order also blocks L visas, which include managers and other key employees of multinational corporations. For example, American companies with global operations or international companies with U.S. branches will be unable to transfer foreign executives into the U.S.

None of these suspensions will affect workers who have already received a green card for these programs—even if those workers aren’t currently within the country. That said, their spouses will still be barred from coming into the country if they also don’t currently have a green card.

Business Leaders Push Back

Since signing the bill, a number of business leaders have pushed back against Trump. In fact, they’ve been lobbying to keep these visa programs active since the Trump administration first floated the idea of them.

One of the reasons Trump hadn’t suspended these programs earlier was because he abandoned the idea in April when he signed his original suspension after fierce backlash from business groups. 

Many businesses have argued these suspensions block the United States’ ability to recruit critical workers from overseas, especially for jobs that have a lack of qualified American applicants.

“Very much disagree with this action,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk—an immigrant himself—said. “In my experience, these skillsets are net job creators. Visa reform makes sense, but this is too broad.” 

Other Big Tech executives such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft president Brad Smith, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai—also an immigrant—have also spoken out against the suspensions.

Others have argued that an outright suspension of these visas doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly be beneficial to American workers.

“Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” Thomas Donohue, the chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce, said after Trump signed the order. “Restrictive changes to our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth and reduce job creation.” 

Immigration advocates have also hit back, saying that the “Americans first” idea doesn’t really reflect the reality of a dynamic and changing workforce.

Even Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), known to be a fierce defender of Trump’s policies, broke with the president in a lengthy Twitter thread.

“Legal immigration is a positive for the American economy, and visa programs allowing American companies to secure qualified, legal labor throughout the world have benefitted economic growth in the United States,” he said.

“Those who believe legal immigration, particularly work visas, are harmful to the American worker do not understand the American economy,” he added. 

“Before coronavirus, legal immigration and programs like these played an important role in helping President Trump create the strongest economy in generations. I have little doubt that programs like these would help him build it again.” 

“Unfortunately, I fear the President’s decision today to temporarily shut down these programs will create a drag on our economic recovery.”

At the same time, advocates for restricting immigration have applauded  the president. 

The work visa suspensions will put the thumb on the labor market scale in favor of U.S. workers,” Jessica Vaughan, the policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said according to The New York Times. 

“It’s really heartening to see the president stand up to the special interests that pull out the stops to lobby for these visa programs,” she added. 

How Does Trump Want to Revise Immigration?

Reportedly, Trump doesn’t want to stop at suspending those visa programs. According to senior administration officials, he is working to make substantial, permanent changes to a wide array of immigration regulations. 

Notably, that includes scrapping the current lottery system in which some visas are awarded and replacing it with more of a merit-based one. Part of the intent with that change is, according to officials, to prevent companies from contracting midlevel foreign workers, thus making accounting, programming, and other technology-based jobs more likely to go to U.S. citizens.

“This will drive both the wage level and the skill level of the H-1B applicants up,” a senior administration official said. “It will eliminate competition with Americans.”

Reportedly, the Department of Labor has also been instructed by Trump to set higher wages for H-1B holders and to probe potential abuses in the program. This is because foreign workers are typically paid lower wages. 

Another major change that is set to be enacted by the administration will bar asylum seekers who illegally cross the border from receiving work authorization. That rule is set to take effect on August 25.

Under it, even if a person legally crossed the border as an asylum seeker, their wait time to be able to apply for a job would jump from 150 days to a year.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CBS News) (BBC)

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