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U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks during a campaign rally on Nov. 13, 2020, in Cumming, Ga. (AP) U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks during a campaign rally on Nov. 13, 2020, in Cumming, Ga. (AP)

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks during a campaign rally on Nov. 13, 2020, in Cumming, Ga. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher December 4, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • The Georgia Republican, running in a Jan. 5 election that could decide which party controls the Senate, has faced scrutiny from the media and regulators about his stock trading.

  • Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff called Perdue a “crook,” while Perdue says investigations that ended with no criminal charges against him mean he was “totally exonerated.” 

  • Both terms are misleading.

Democrat Jon Ossoff was still relatively new on the national political scene when, in an Oct. 28 debate with Sen. David Perdue, he hit the Georgia Republican with an attack that went viral.

"Well, perhaps Senator Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the COVID-19 pandemic if you hadn’t been fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading," the 33-year-old documentary filmmaker said in Savannah.

"It’s not just that you’re a crook, senator. It’s that you’re attacking the health of the people that you represent. You did say COVID-19 was no deadlier than the flu. You did say there would be no significant uptick in cases. All the while, you were looking after your own assets and your own portfolio."

Perdue edged Ossoff by 1.78 percentage points in the Nov. 3 election. But because neither candidate won more than 50% of the vote, they will compete again Jan. 5 in one of two Georgia runoffs. Democratic wins in both races would effectively shift control from the GOP to the Democrats as President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Amid new reporting about Perdue’s stock deals, Ossoff has continued to call Perdue a crook. Perdue has claimed in a campaign ad he was "totally exonerated." 

Both are misleading characterizations. Perdue’s large volume of stock trades during his six years in office became the subject of a Justice Department probe into possible insider trading, according to the New York Times. The investigations into Perdue’s trades closed without any charges of wrongdoing, but authorities did not expressly clear or exonerate him.

We take a closer look here.

The candidates and their duel over insider trading

Perdue was the CEO of the athletic brand Reebok and discount retailer Dollar General. (He’s not connected with Perdue Farms, the chicken producer.) His net worth is in the tens of millions of dollars. 

Perdue was elected to an open Senate seat in 2014, in his first run for elected office. 

Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, made his first run for public office in a 2017 special election for an open Atlanta-area U.S. House seat. He lost to Republican Karen Handel.

Ossoff is accusing Perdue of illegal insider trading, which is when someone uses nonpublic information to profit — or avoid losses — from a stock sale or purchase. Insider trading by members of Congress is a special concern for regulators because lawmakers often have privileged access to nonpublic briefings and investigative information that could affect individual companies or industries. 

"Senators are public servants and take an oath not to enrich themselves at the public’s expense," said University of Iowa law professor Gregory Shill, who wrote a journal article on securities trading by lawmakers during the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak. "In fact, it is prohibited to engage in insider trading based on private information made available to senators in their capacity as senators." 

But he and other experts say it can be difficult to prove charges of illegal insider trading, partly because of a lack of clarity in the 2012 law that governs trades by lawmakers.

The Perdue trades that drew scrutiny

Here are some of the Perdue stock transactions that have been under scrutiny from news media and regulators:

Investment in PPE maker: On Jan. 24 — the same day that Trump administration health officials privately briefed senators on the threat posed by the coronavirus — Perdue bought shares worth as much as $65,000 in DuPont de Nemours, which supplies personal protective equipment used to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. 

Senate committee leaders called it an "all-senator briefing," but  a Perdue campaign ad released Nov. 30 claimed Perdue did not attend. No official attendance record was kept, a Senate committee aide told us.

Purchase of pharmaceutical stock: In early 2020, Perdue invested up to $245,000 in Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, in multiple transactions around the same time that members of Congress began sounding the alarm that more should be done to address the spread of the virus, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, citing Senate financial disclosures. The New York Times also reported on Perdue’s Pfizer transactions, noting he made one of the purchases on the same day he issued a news release saying he had regularly attended briefings led by the coronavirus task force. 

Sale and buyback of Cardlytics: The Times reported Nov. 25 that a Justice Department review of Perdue’s trading around the outset of the coronavirus, which also drew attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission, turned up a sale of more than $1 million worth of stock in the marketing technology company Cardlytics, where he had been a board member until 2014. Six weeks after the sale, its share price dropped when the company’s founder announced he would step down as chief executive and the firm warned of weak sales, according to the Times. After the company’s stock price fell in March to $29, Perdue bought back much of the stock he had sold. It was trading at around $120 per share at the time the article was published.

Gains on FireEye: A Dec. 2 Times report on Perdue’s prolific stock trading said nearly half of his trades in shares of FireEye, a federal cybersecurity contractor, occurred while he sat on the Senate cybersecurity subcommittee, "a role that potentially could have provided him with nonpublic information about companies like FireEye." In 2018, Perdue reported capital gains of up to $15,000 from FireEye trades.

Status of the investigations

After reviews by the SEC and the Justice Department, Perdue has not been charged with or convicted of any crime.

The Justice Department closed its inquiry in the summer of 2020 and decided not to file charges, the Times said. 

The Justice Department did not respond to our requests for information.

The Justice Department also looked into stock trades by four other senators: Republicans Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California. In May, it concluded its investigations of Loeffler, Inhofe and Feinstein without any action, but continued its investigation of Burr. 

The Senate Ethics Committee also investigated Loeffler’s trades based on complaints from a watchdog group and found no evidence that she violated any laws or Senate rules. She, too, claimed she had been "exonerated."

But Perdue’s claims in a Nov. 30 campaign ad — that he "was cleared" by the Justice Department, the SEC and the Senate Ethics Committee, and was "totally exonerated" — don’t  accurately describe what happened.

For one thing, there has been no public disclosure that the Senate Ethics committee investigated Perdue at all. We contacted the committee staff but didn’t hear back. 

For another, "exonerate" usually implies a formal finding that there was no wrongdoing.

Federal law enforcement agencies "generally don’t ‘exonerate’ subjects of investigations," said Penn State University law professor and longtime attorney Stanley Brand, who has defended clients in Justice Department prosecutions. "Rather, they decline to bring cases which they don’t believe they have sufficient evidence to prosecute."

Perdue campaign spokesman John Burke called Ossoff’s claims "debunked." Asked for evidence that Perdue has been exonerated by the Justice Department, the SEC or the Senate Ethics Committee, Burke referred us to the New York Times story that revealed the DOJ-SEC probe and resulted in no charges. 

Burke has previously said Perdue "doesn’t handle the day-to-day decisions of his portfolio." But the Times reported that Perdue directed his wealth manager at Goldman Sachs to sell more than $1 million in Cardlytics shares.

The verdict

Ossoff’s claim that Perdue is a "crook" is not supported by any official finding of wrongdoing against the senator. After reviews by the SEC and the Justice Department, Perdue has not been charged with, or convicted of, any crime.

But Perdue’s claim that he was "totally exonerated" and cleared by the Justice Department, the SEC and the Senate Ethics Committee mischaracterizes the outcome of the investigations into his trades. Justice and SEC investigations ended without action against him, and there’s no evidence the Ethics Committee looked into his trades.
 

RELATED: PolitiFact fact-checks and articles about the two Georgia Senate runoffs

RELATED: 4 people want to be Georgia’s next 2 senators. The races could tip the Senate

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Our Sources

Twitter, David Perdue tweet of a Perdue campaign ad, Nov. 30, 2020

CNN, Jon Ossoff interview, Nov. 29, 2020

New York Times, "Stock Trades by Senator Perdue Said to Have Prompted Justice Dept. Inquiry," Nov. 25, 2020

New York Times, "2,596 Trades in One Term: Inside Senator Perdue’s Stock Portfolio," Dec. 2, 2020

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "David Perdue’s stock trading saw an uptick as coronavirus took hold," April 7, 2020

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Loeffler among senators whose stock trading during coronavirus raises questions," March 24, 2020

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "New questions surface about David Perdue’s involvement in stock trades," Nov. 25, 2020

Associated Press, "Ga. Sen. Perdue boosts wealth with well-timed stock trades," Nov. 25, 2020

Email, Jon Ossoff campaign spokeswoman Miryam Lipper, Dec. 3, 2020

Email, David Perdue campaign spokesman John Burke, Dec. 4, 2020

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, news release, Jan. 24, 2020

WXIA-TV, "Perdue stock nets thousands early in opioid crisis," Dec. 3, 2020

Email, longtime attorney and Penn State University law professor Stanley Brand, who has defended clients in Justice Department prosecutions, Dec. 2, 2020

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Raphael Warnock's claim that Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler profited from COVID-19," Oct. 31, 2020

Email, securities law expert Barry Temkin, a partner in the Mound Cotton firm in New York City and an adjunct law professor at Fordham University, Dec. 3, 2020

Email, University of Iowa law professor Gregory Shill, author of a law journal article on congressional securities trading, Dec. 2, 2020

Email, Jenna Grande, spokeswoman for Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Dec. 4, 2020

Email, Taylor Haulsee, staff member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Dec. 3, 2020

Washington Post, "What we know about David Perdue’s stock trades," Dec. 2, 2020

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A ‘crook’? ‘Totally exonerated’? Misleading claims about Ga. Sen. David Perdue and his stock trades