The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, has come under fire in recent weeks for unloading stock holdings right before the market crashed on fears of coronavirus and for a timely sale of shares in an obscure Dutch fertilizer company.
Now the North Carolina Republican’s 2017 sale of his Washington, D.C., home to a group led by a donor and powerful lobbyist who had business before Burr’s committee is raising additional ethical questions.
Burr sold the small townhouse, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, for what, by some estimates, was an above market price — $900,000 — to a team led by lobbyist John Green. That is tens of thousands of dollars above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real estate website and a local real estate agent. The sale was done off-market, without the home being listed for sale publicly.
Green is a longtime donor to Burr’s political campaigns and has co-hosted at least one fundraiser for him. In 2017, the year of the sale, Green lobbied on behalf of a stream of clients with business before Burr’s committees.
Ethics experts are generally troubled when politicians enter into business transactions with donors or lobbyists with matters before them. The legality of this sale hinges on whether the home was purchased for fair market value. If it was purchased for more than that, it would be considered a gift. Gifts of significant value from lobbyists are generally banned by Senate ethics rules, and those that aren’t are typically required to be publicly disclosed. Neither Burr nor Green disclosed any such gifts. Gifts that are intended to influence official actions are illegal.
“This appears to be extremely problematic,” said Kedric Payne, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center and former deputy chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Other ethics experts agreed. “This has every appearance of being a violation of the gift ban,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The gift ban is one of the most basic legal frameworks for preventing corruption. Lobbyist gifts to lawmakers is akin to a bribe.”
Holman, however, said proving such transactions went for above market value is difficult. He compared the scenario to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt renting a Capitol Hill condo for a discounted rate from the wife of a lobbyist who sought to influence the agency’s decisions. EPA officials initially defended the rent as market rate, and the case did not result in any sanction or prosecution against Pruitt.
In a statement, a Burr spokesperson said the price was the fair market value, “directly in line with comparable properties recently sold in the area.”
“The sale was finalized in February 2017 after a months-long process, which included an independent appraisal confirming the building’s market value and legal review of the title and contract,” the spokesperson said. “The Senate Ethics Committee was notified before the sale and the Committee’s guidance was followed on all relevant public financial disclosures.”
The ethics committee is not known for its aggressive scrutiny of members. “The Senate Ethics Committee is an insider’s club — it is members overseeing each other,” Holman said. “The committee is more widely known for providing cover to colleagues, and it would appear that is what happened in this case.”
In a short statement, Green said, “I have not lobbied the Senator or worked on an issue with his office personally since 2016.”
Tax assessors valued the Washington, D.C., home for $796,720 in 2017, more than $100,000 less than Green and his business partner paid for it. But tax assessment values in the city often come in under market prices. Burr paid $525,000 for the place in 2003.