The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, sold off almost $47,000 dollars worth of shares in a small Dutch fertilizer company in 2018, just weeks before its stock began a sharp 40% collapse.
Beginning on Sept. 5, 2018, Burr and his wife sold off their stake in the company, OCI, in three days when its shares were priced near their highest point in the last four years.
A month later, the company, which is not traded on a U.S. stock exchange, began to falter, completing its dramatic fall after news that the company failed to meet quarterly earnings expectations.
Investors may also have been disappointed by developments in the Trump administration's trade policy that hurt OCI. The company had been positioned to benefit from the expected sanctions on Iranian oil and petrochemical imports. But in November 2018, the Trump administration waived some of those restrictions. The waivers undercut the company's hopes.
John Olson, a retired Gibson Dunn partner who helped draft insider trading legislation and who has represented individuals before the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the trades appeared unusual and warranted further scrutiny.
"It's certainly something that might prompt an investigation," he said. "If I were at the SEC, it would raise a question in my mind."
Olson said it's "reckless" for members of Congress to trade in individual stocks because of the appearance it creates. Burr, he said, would need to explain how he came to invest in the company and whether any information he learned as a senator informed his decision to sell his stake.
"Just on the face of it, it's unusual. How does he even know this Dutch company exists with all he has to do as chair of the Intelligence Committee and as a senior senator," Olson said. "How does he have time to research obscure companies in Holland?"
Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, has come under fire recently for trading individual stocks at opportune moments. Last month, ProPublica reported that Burr unloaded a significant portion of his total portfolio — between $628,000 and $1.72 million of stock — a week before the market crash triggered by the coronavirus outbreak. The sales came soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the virus.
Federal authorities are now reportedly scrutinizing those trades, and the FBI has contacted him. Burr has denied allegations of insider trading, saying that he based his decisions solely on public information, including CNBC reports, and not on information he obtained as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee or as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Burr's Senate office and a law firm advising him both declined to answer questions from ProPublica. A spokesman for OCI did not respond. In his role as chair of the intelligence committee and a member of the finance committee, Burr has oversight on some Iran matters and sanctions policy, but there is no evidence he knew in advance about the Trump administration's sanction waivers.
How Burr came to first invest in OCI is unclear.
The company produces nitrogen fertilizers and industrial chemicals such as methanol and urea from plants in North Africa, the Middle East, Texas and Iowa. The company was founded by the Sawiris family, one of Egypt's wealthiest, and they remain its largest shareholders.
OCI's chief executive is Nassef Sawiris, a billionaire who owns a significant stake in the English soccer team Aston Villa. His brother, Naguib Sawiris, got involved in American presidential politics in 2012, when he donated $78,000 to a joint fundraising committee for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, which was deemed by the Federal Election Commission as a potentially illegal contribution from a foreign national. (Romney's committee told the FEC that the potential foreign donors that regulators singled out, which included Sawiris, "are eligible donors and are not foreign nationals.") Burr has not received any donations from the Sawiris, according to FEC disclosures.
According to his financial disclosure forms, Burr and his wife first invested in OCI in June 2014, bought again in August 2014 and invested once more in April 2016. They accumulated 1,400 shares, which had a peak value of about $47,670.
A month after Burr and his wife sold their stake in September 2018, shares began to fall dramatically. The dip continued in November 2018, when OCI failed to meet earnings projections. According to a Citibank analysis at the time, the company's quarterly earnings were 6% below expectations and its fertilizer sales fell 10% below projections.
By selling when they did, the Burrs avoided a decline in share price that the company has yet to recover from. The stock traded at 29 euros a share on Sept. 5, near the high point for the last four years, and fell 42% by the end of that year. OCI's stock is now selling at about a third of its value compared with when Burr first invested.
In November, the Trump administration announced it was exempting eight countries, including Turkey, from restrictions it was imposing on importers of Iranian oil and petrochemicals. Before that announcement, OCI analysts had speculated that the sanctions could be a boon for the company, as they would force Turkey and other countries to buy industrial chemicals from North Africa where OCI has plants, instead of Iran.
Sawiris encouraged that expectation in a May 2018 call with investors, saying, "Iran supplied a lot of product competing with North African product in Turkey. Should that situation change, that would boost demand for North African products going into Turkey."
In an Aug. 31, 2018, earnings report filed by OCI, the company again pointed to the expectation that sanctions against Iranian imports could help OCI: "Exports from Iran, one of the largest urea exporters globally, are at risk of significant curtailments," the report stated. "Sanctions on Iran by the United States will likely reduce Iranian exports of urea."
In April 2019, Burr joined other senators in calling on the Trump administration to cease the temporary waivers on Iranian import sanctions, though at that point he no longer had a stake in OCI.
Doris Burke contributed reporting.
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