Democratic lawmakers also invested in COVID-19-sensitive companies, including through selling and buying stocks in vaccine manufacturers and other companies deeply involved with pandemic relief efforts.
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat of Kentucky who chairs the House Budget Committee, sold up to $US15,000 ($AU20,912) worth of stock in 3M, which creates and distributes personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, at the end of March 2020.
When asked about Yarmuth’s stock investments, Yarmuth’s spokesperson said the chairman “has an investment manager who handles these transactions and had no role in this stock transaction.”
But Yarmuth, like most members of Congress, has not placed his assets in what’s known as a “qualified blind trust” — a formal arrangement, requiring congressional approval, in which a lawmaker transfers management of their assets to an independent trustee.
Qualified blind trusts can be expensive and time-consuming to establish, but congressional guidance suggests they provide the “most comprehensive approach” to avoiding “potential conflicts of interest or the appearance of such conflicts.”
Archie Smith, the husband of Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, held up to $US250,000 ($AU348,529) worth of 3M shares, according to her annual disclosure. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon reported that his wife, Margaret Kirkpatrick, bought up to $US15,000 ($AU20,912) worth of stock in Quest Diagnostics, a leading COVID-19 test provider, in March 2020. Blumenauer did not respond to repeated requests for comment about his financial filings.
Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia reported buying up to $US15,000 ($AU20,912) worth of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals stock in May 2020 through a jointly held account. He sold up to $US30,000 ($AU41,824) worth of the stock between July and August 2020 through a jointly held account.
Regeneron makes a monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 that doctors used last year to treat then-President Donald Trump.
“The congressman does not personally manage or direct any purchases or sales in his stock portfolio. They are managed by a bank brokerage,” Beyer’s spokesman, Aaron Fritschner, said of his boss’ financial planning, adding, “The only direction they have from him is to avoid investments in a few areas like fossil fuels, private prisons, etc.”
Democrats’ mixed messaging
Early in the pandemic, some lawmakers condemned people looking to make money off COVID-19-related treatments and defenses.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat of New Jersey, told MSNBC in April 2020, “This is not the time for anybody to be profiting off of selling ventilators, vaccines, drugs, treatments, PPE, anywhere in the world.”
But Malinowski was one of them: The lawmaker sold up to $US15,000 ($AU20,912) worth of stock in Chembio Diagnostics, a company that offers COVID-19 testing kits and infectious-disease testing, in the early days of the pandemic.
In 2020, he failed to disclose dozens of stock trades in violation of the federal Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012 — which clarifies that it is illegal for members of Congress to engage in insider trading — acknowledging them only after Insider reported about his trading activities. Malinowski’s office previously told Insider that the congressman employed a financial advisor to trade stocks on his behalf.
Malinowski has since placed his stock assets in a qualified blind trust. But he remains under investigation by the House Committee on Ethics after the independent Office of Congressional Ethics said it found “substantial reason to believe” that Malinowski violated federal rules or laws designed to promote transparency and defend against conflicts of interest. The New Jersey lawmaker is one of 10 lawmakers who have taken the option to use a qualified blind trust, Insider found.
Some Democrats have argued that their investments in these companies don’t present a problem because they happened before the pandemic.
Rep. David Price, a Democrat of North Carolina, reported owning up to $US50,000 ($AU69,706) worth of shares in 3M. In a statement to Insider, the lawmaker said his investment “predates the pandemic by many years and was not influenced by current events.”
“I supported the STOCK Act because I firmly believe it should be illegal for Members of Congress to use nonpublic information to enrich themselves, an ethical standard that I live by,” he said.
Others said they did not directly manage their own investments. Gottheimer, the New Jersey Democrat whose portfolio includes Regeneron and Moderna, said through his spokeswoman, Alexandra Caffrey, that he did not personally make any decisions about the trades.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a freshman Republican of Alabama, has invested in Johnson & Johnson, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and 3M.
Tuberville’s spokeswoman, Ryann DuRant, previously told Insider that her boss did not personally make his stock trades and has “long had financial advisors who actively manage his portfolio without his day-to-day involvement.” But she has not said whether Tuberville gives any direction to his advisors about which stocks to avoid. When Insider followed up on December 3, DuRant said she didn’t have anything new to add to her previous statement.
Tuberville is a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which has routinely conducted hearings on COVID-19-related matters.
In July 2020, Republican Rep. Carol Miller of West Virginia reported that her husband, Matt Miller, had bought up to $US50,000 ($AU69,706) worth of shares of Abbott Laboratories, a COVID-19 testing company. Carol Miller did not respond to requests for comment about her financial filings.
Pfizer and Moderna are among some of the biggest pandemic-era companies lawmakers invested it.
Pharmaceutical contributions and conflicts
Lawmakers’ trading stocks of companies that have been profiting from their response to the pandemic has raised concerns about ethics and conflicts of interest.
But Stanley Brand, who served as a general counsel to the US House of Representatives, told Insider that new regulation to bar lawmakers who sit on certain committees from trading stocks of companies in industries that the committees have jurisdiction over could create “a regulatory nightmare.”
“If you recuse these people, their constituents don’t have a vote,” he said. “You could literally disqualify half of a committee if you had that rule. I don’t know, maybe you wouldn’t even get a quorum, depending on what these people own.”
This issue doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Pharmaceutical companies at the center of the pandemic response have been bulking up their lobbying efforts and significantly contributing to political campaigns.
Pfizer PACs and individuals who work for the pharmaceutical giant contributed more than $US4 ($AU6) million to candidates and committees in the 2020 election cycle, while Johnson & Johnson PACs and employees contributed more than $US2 ($AU3) million, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics.
Both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson gave more to Democrats than to Republicans.
Of the big three vaccine manufacturers, Pfizer leads with the most money spent lobbying members of Congress during the pandemic. According to OpenSecrets, Pfizer spent nearly $US11 ($AU15) million lobbying the federal government, including Congress, in 2020. The nonpartisan research organization also reported that Johnson & Johnson spent $US7.9 ($AU11) million on lobbying in 2020. Moderna, which started lobbying the federal government in 2019, has spent $US420,000 ($AU585,529) on federal lobbying in 2021, an increase from $US280 ($AU390),000 in 2020.
Joshua Silver, the CEO of the anticorruption advocacy group RepresentUs, said the flow of money in and out of the US Capitol — be it campaign contributions to elected officials, or sitting lawmakers investing in industries they’re supposed to oversee — underscored an erosion of ethical standards in Congress.
“We’ve seen 50 years of a steady unraveling of government ethics at the hands of wealthy special interests and the politicians who serve them,” Silver said.
Self-correction is too much to ask of this or any other Congress, he added.
“Both parties are conflicted and benefit from the status quo,” he told Insider. “The best way for the country to get back on track is for voters to cut ties with self-serving opportunists — and they better do it fast. The situation is much more bleak than the American public realizes.”