COVID-19 story recipe: How to see what stocks members of Congress are dumping (or buying)
Where to find the data, how to explore it, and questions to ask to reproduce the story for your community
This story started with another story - one reported by NPR about Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the Intelligence Committee. The NPR story reported that Burr “warned a small group of well-connected constituents three weeks ago to prepare for dire economic and societal effects of the coronavirus.” That led my colleague, Robert Faturechi, to ask: Did Burr take his own advice when it came to his financial situation? To answer that question, we turned to financial disclosures filed with the Senate.
The story we found
What we found was that not long after he offered a positive assessment in public of the country’s ability to handle the coronavirus, Burr sold hundreds of thousands of (and potentially up to $1.7 million) dollars in stocks, a highly unusual series of trades for him. Burr told us that he relied only on public information, not classified briefings he received as Intelligence chair. At the senator’s request, the Senate Ethics Committee opened a review of the matter. While reporting on Burr, we looked at the other 99 senators and found a few who had also sold stocks, but none approached Burr’s trading activity. We looked at a few members of the House, but with 435 of them there are plenty of opportunities for you to dig in.
How you can analyze the data
The first thing to realize is that even though stock trades are now handled electronically, this isn’t all electronic data. The systems for both the Senate and the House of Representatives also contain scans of paper documents turned into image PDFs (although both chambers have some scrapable records as well). It’s also important to note several important caveats:
First, when it comes to stock trades, senators and their staff are only required to report the monetary values in broad ranges such as “from $1,001 to $15,000.” Some filers do include the reports generated by their investment managers, so it could be possible to see exact amounts of shares traded and money involved, but that’s not universally true.
Second, transactions are reported in two ways: an annual report, usually available around May, covering the previous calendar year, and periodic reports of individual transactions. We found Burr’s 2020 trades in the latter, but it’s important to note that for previous years, annual reports will duplicate the information found in the periodic filings.
What we needed to do was type the transaction details into a Google sheet so that we could arrange them by date, amount, and the person involved (senators must also report trades made by spouses and dependent children if the senator also owns that asset). In Burr’s case, many of the trades were from his spouse’s portfolio.
Here is the process we followed:
- Search for the senator you’re looking into on the United States Senate Financial Disclosures website, or your House representative on the House version of the site. If you’re going for the most recent trades, you’ll be looking for the periodic reports.
- Going through each search result, click on the link for each report and enter each trade into your own spreadsheet, going back as far as you need to (the Senate and House online disclosures extend back to 2012). For PDFs, rotating the images into portrait mode seems like a good idea, but it also can cut off transactions at the bottom of a page, so go for “printer-friendly” mode instead.
- Senators can file amended reports, so you’ll want to be sure you’re not including duplicate transactions, although there’s no unique identifier included.
- Make sure that the assets are described in a consistent manner. Some reports use stock symbols while others use the names.
- Count up the trades you’re focusing on and sum up the minimum and maximum ranges. Use both ranges in your story. For example: If there were three trades, each involving values between $1,001 and $15,000, you would write “from $3,003 to $45,000 in value.”
Where to look for your story
In our case, the story was pretty clear to see: Burr made 33 stock sales in January and February, a pattern that was entirely out of character for his recent trading history, and also in contrast to what he was telling the public about the risks of the coronavirus. Others have followed up with stories on a few other lawmakers’ recent trading activities.
The good news is that you can do a similar thing for members of Congress from your state, and Senate staffers (although it’s worth pointing out that for Senate staffers, you need to actually go to Washington D.C. to see those records — which, as of publication, is still possible).
If you mainly focus on a single member of Congress, it’s worth having a history of their investing activity so that you can spot unusual trades. That’s important because many lawmakers are wealthy individuals who do a lot of trading, so what may seem like a huge amount of transactions may be fairly typical for the individual involved. Having some idea of what normal looks like by typing in older data really helps you know if you have a great story or not.
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Derek Willis is a news applications developer at ProPublica, focusing on politics and elections. He previously worked as a developer and reporter at the New York Times, a database editor at The Washington Post, and at the Center for Public Integrity and Congressional Quarterly.