From the Editor: Richard Burr Needs To Explain Himself. Again.

Sen. Richard Burr has a lot of explaining to do. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

By Billy Ball

April 15, 2020

NC Senior Senator Is Again Mired In Scandal. This Time Over a D.C. Townhouse Sale To A Lobbyist.

Note: “From the Editor” pieces are commentaries written by Cardinal & Pine Managing Editor Billy Ball. For more of these commentaries, click here.

Whatever you might have thought of Sen. Richard Burr two weeks ago—party-line voter, NRA glutton, a D.C. insider’s insider—you might not have thought the North Carolina Republican would become an ethical quandary waiting to happen.

Taking stock of his career, he has been a reliably right senator who has managed to avoid scandal.

Things have quickly changed for the senior senator, who chairs the Senate’s powerful intelligence committee.

Last month, reporters uncovered Burr’s supremely suspect stock sales as the coronavirus pandemic spread. A small tidal wave of people called for his resignation.

And now a new report from ProPublica has uncovered a questionable business deal in which Burr reportedly sold a D.C. townhome to a donor and lobbyist with business before his committee. 

Yesterday’s Burr is not today’s Burr. Burr is a controversial figure now not just for his politics, but for his potentially unethical actions. He is a lightning rod. And he deserves it.

From today’s ProPublica report:

“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.”

Burr says he is not running for re-election, which of course can be a freeing thing for politicians. But it’s hard to imagine he wanted to become one of D.C.’s biggest scandalmakers, not counting the guy in the White House.

Even Burr’s colleague, NC Sen. Thom Tillis, who is running for re-election, said Burr needs to cough up a good explanation for the stock sales.

Burr will have his defenders who argue, the townhome was sold in the same price range as some neighboring properties. Burr’s office has already said as much. But if this new scandal does anything, it should alert the public to the troubling, Panama Canal-sized holes in our legislative ethics laws.

If the sale is determined to be at market value, Burr will technically be in the clear. But that should not buffer Burr or any other lawmaker from public outrage when their constituents learn they’re striking personal business deals with individuals doing business before their committee.

It might not be a violation of Senate ethics rules, but it should bea violation of the public’s ethics rules.

Selling something for $900,000 when you paid $525,000 for it is a boon, even if it’s at fair market value. And it should set off alarms when lawmakers either buy or sell from the people who make their living testifying before them in the august chambers of Congress, the Senate, or the statehouses.

Burr should explain himself. And when he’s done, he and our legislative leaders should explain why such a questionable code of ethics exists in the first place.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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