The Appellate Body returns the fight over the Burr warrant to the lower court


A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a judge’s ruling blocking public access to a search warrant for Senator Richard M. Burr’s cellphone, which federal investigators seized in an investigation into his stock dealings.

The three-judge Court of Appeals found that U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell misapplied the law in her May order and failed to adequately address the public’s interest in the materials when she responded to a Los Angeles Times request for access to the warrant and declined in support of the affidavit.

The case stems from a federal investigation that began in 2020 into whether Burr, a North Carolina Republican, illegally used information from congressional briefings about the coronavirus to buy 1.65 shares just before the outbreak of the pandemic million dollars for sale. Burr’s attorneys announced in January 2021 that the Justice Department had told them it would not be filing charges. The Times first reported in May 2020 that federal agents, relying on a search warrant, obtained Burr’s cell phone as part of their investigation.

Katie Townsend, attorney for the Times who works for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Pressargued before the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit in early February that the public has an interest in accessing the records and that the lower court judge should not have denied the newspaper’s request for review.

The appeals court not only concluded that Howell’s analysis of long-established factors in the decision to unseal documents was “flawed,” but also directed it to consider recent disclosures from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The commission is conducting its own civil investigation into the stock dealings of Burr and his brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth. The agency disclosed the investigation in court filings last year to compel Fauth to testify in its investigation.

The SEC filings say that on Feb. 13, 2020, Burr sold $1.652 million in stock — “all but one of the shares in his and his wife’s retirement account” — at a time when he “Had material nonpublic information about COVID-19 and its potential impact on the U.S. and global economy.” The SEC announced that Fauth sold shares shortly after speaking with Burr that same day.

The appeals court ordered Howell to reevaluate May’s finding that “no disclosure of search warrant materials would be appropriate in a closed, non-public investigation which has not resulted in criminal charges and in which individual privacy and government interests may be implied.” .

“We are very satisfied with the result. I can’t say I was surprised,” Townsend said in an interview after the clashes.

The US Attorney for the District of Columbia declined to comment. Burr spokesmen did not respond to messages requesting comment.

Burr, who is not running for re-election, was one of several senators — including Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California — whose stock sales and purchases were under scrutiny by the Justice Department for violations of a congressional insider trading law early in the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this was the only case in which arrest warrants were obtained. All investigations were dropped without charge. The Appellate Body returns the fight over the Burr warrant to the lower court

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