For a time in the early spring, Senator Richard Burr was the most despised elected official in America. In March, ProPublica revealed that North Carolina’s senior Senator unloaded a tranche of stock after receiving classified briefings about the state of the coronavirus pandemic a month earlier. Burr appeared to have used his post as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to turn this information into the mother of all hot tips. Depending on who’s counting, Burr made anywhere from $628,000 to $1.7 million in profits that were questionable at best.
The outrage came in fast, hard, and on a nonpartisan basis. A number of right-wing luminaries demanded Burr’s resignation. However, things managed to quiet down until Wednesday night, when the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI had served Burr with a search warrant for his phone as part of its investigation into possible insider trading. By Thursday morning, as if he had a choice, Burr stood down from his committee chairmanship at least for the duration of the federal probe.
NBC News confirmed this bombshell development on Thursday morning. Watch coverage from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” here.
NBC News’ Kasie Hunt reminded us why the news of these trades generated so much bipartisan outrage in March. Burr is a member of the “Gang of Eight”–the senior lawmakers who are briefed on classified intelligence matters. Hence, he receives information that isn’t disclosed to other lawmakers, let alone the general public.
It’s literally impossible to underscore how significant this is. When conducted properly, federal criminal investigations are supposed to proceed like slow-motion strangulations. That is, methodically garner enough evidence until that evidence is so overwhelming that the defendant would have to be suicidal to go to trial.
Suffice to say that at this point, Burr is in water as hot as he’s ever faced in his near quarter-century in Washington–five terms in the House, and three terms in the Senate. But former U. S. Attorney and current NBC News legal analyst Barbara McQuade reminded us just how hot things are for Burr.
McQuade points out that getting a search warrant for a sitting Senator requires a much higher burden than just probable cause. For prosecutors and the FBI to even consider getting a search warrant for Burr, some of the most senior officials at the Department of Justice would have had to be in the loop. Considering that Attorney General William Barr has increasingly become Donald Trump’s office boy or hired gun–depending on the reckoning–this can only mean that the evidence against Burr is such that the senior leadership at the DOJ could not ignore it.
McQuade knows what it takes to bring down big tigers. While serving as U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Bay City), she prosecuted one of the worst cases of health care fraud in American history. Farid Fata, a hematologist in the Detroit area, was pumping hundreds of patients with chemotherapy when they didn’t really need it–all in the name of lining his pockets with fraudulent proceeds from Medicare and private insurance companies.
When Fata was finally arrested in 2013, McQuade put him on notice that he was in really hot water. She ultimately won a 23-count indictment that would have had Fata facing as much as 175 years in prison if convicted, plus possible deportation to his native Lebanon. She tacked on that last charge because Fata deceived immigration authorities about the extent of his fraud when he applied for American citizenship in 2009, two years after his fraud began.
Fata must have realized he was in deep legal doo-doo. He pleaded guilty to 13 counts of health care fraud, money laundering, and taking kickbacks in 2014. However, McQuade still pressed for the maximum of 175 years in prison, calling him worse than Bernie Madoff. Virtually the only concession she gave Fata was dropping the immigration charges. Ultimately, Fata was sentenced to 45 years, virtually assuring that he will die in prison.
On paper, Fata had the resources to drag this case out for a long time. With this in mind, it’s pretty safe to assume that McQuade wouldn’t have been able to take such a tough line on Fata without convincing then-Attorney General Eric Holder that she could turn a wealthy doctor into a supplicant begging for mercy. It’s equally safe to assume that the FBI and federal prosecutors had as tough a sell, if not tougher, to make to their bosses at the DOJ in order to get a search warrant for a senior U. S. Senator.
So when a former U. S. Attorney who has experience taking down powerful and wealthy defendants tells you just how high a bar had to be cleared to even get Burr’s phone, it should tell you how much trouble Burr faces. Burr has already said that he will not run for a fourth term in 2022. But if things are getting as hot for him as it seems, he may have to make plans to leave Washington a lot sooner.
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