Congressional Republicans who scrapped plans to overhaul the Office of Congressional Ethics on Tuesday might be regretting their decision -- Senate Democrats are asking the body to investigate President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Department of Head and Human Services, Representative Tom Price, over his investment activities.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats are demanding the OCE probe Price's financial investments and stock trading activities. "We don't know if he broke the law, but there are certainly enough serious questions to warrant a serious investigation before any hearing is held on Congressman Price to become Secretary of HHS," Schumer said at a press conference on Thursday.
The Wall Street Journal reported in December that Price, 62, traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related companies over a four-year period while sponsoring and advocating legislation that could potentially affect those companies' stocks. He traded about 40 stocks since 2012, including 12 during the most recent Congressional session. During the same two-year period, he sponsored nine and co-sponsored 35 health-related bills in the House.
"Bottom line, Congressman Price had the influence and was actively involved in pushing healthcare policies while simultaneously making dozens of trades in companies that would be impacted by those policies. He did this repeatedly and in such large numbers, he's likely to have made tens of thousands of dollars on one of these trades alone," said Schumer. "Every American should be shocked by this."
Senators Patty Murray and Ron Wyden, ranking members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Senate Finance Committee, which will oversee Price's confirmation hearings, appeared alongside Schumer at the Thursday news conference.
"We want to know who he met with and when, whether the transactions in question were initiated by a broker or by Congressman Price himself, what, if any, nonpublic information Congressman Price had when those transactions were made, and exactly how much profit he made from each transaction," Murray said.
"If you are not a public official, making a smart investment is just that, it's smart. If you are a public official, however, at a minimum you have to be sensitive to appearances of conflict of interest," Wyden said.
Senate Democrats aren't the only ones pushing the OCE to look into Price. Washington advocacy group Public Citizen sent a letter on Thursday to the OCE and the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting an investigation into his trading activities and those of Representative Chris Collins, a New York Republican on the Trump transition team.
"They are very active players on the stock market, and what's really concerning is that they both focus on the healthcare industry and pharmaceuticals, which is the industries that they oversee in their official capacities in Congress," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. He said Public Citizen notified the Senate of its intention to send the letter this week.
Both Congressmen appear to have made especially well-timed trades surrounding Australian biotech company Innate Immuno.
Collins, who according to TheStreet's BoardEx has sat on the company's board since 2013, purchased four million of its shares on August 29. Two days later, Price purchased between $50,000 and $100,000 in stock of the same company. Innate Immuno shares have doubled since their investment.
Price chairs the House Committee on Budget and sits on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health. Collins serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including its Subcommittee on Health and on Oversight and Investigation.
Both supported the 21st Century Cures Act, which authorizes billions of dollars in medical research spending and seeks to speed up drug approval by the FDA.
The violation in question is of the STOCK Act, 2012 legislation designed to combat insider trading.
Spokespeople for Price and Collins did not immediately return requests for comment on the issue.
"Hypocrisy is apparently alive and well this morning in Washington," said Trump spokesman Phillip Blando of the Senate Democrats' push for an investigation into Price, pointing to the healthcare and pharmaceutical stock holdings of a number of Senate Democrats. "The reality is that Dr. Price's 20-year career as an orthopedic surgeon and a fiscal conservative make him uniquely qualified to lead HHS. Today's stunt is simply an effort to deflect attention away from ObamaCare's dismal record, including reduced choices and $700 billion in Medicare cuts."
The SEC and OCE declined to comment on the matter.
An ethics investigation into Price and Collins was almost made impossible earlier this week. On Monday, Congressional Republicans voted to strip the Office of Congressional Ethics of many of its powers, only to reverse course on Tuesday.
Schumer noted the irony.
"It's worth noting that we can ask for this investigation as an outside-the-House entity, but if House Republicans had had their way Monday, we wouldn't be allowed to do this," he said.