Insider trading is illegal — except for members of Congress. A Wall Street executive who buys or sells stock based on insider information would face a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and quite possibly a federal prosecutor. But senators and congressmen are free to legally trade stock based on nonpublic information they have obtained through their official positions as elected officials — and they do so on a regular basis.
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On Sunday night, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” looked into this form of “lawful graft.” The “60 Minutes” story exposed, among others, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for participating in a lucrative initial public offering from Visa in 2008 that was not available to the general public, just as a troublesome piece of legislation that would have hurt credit card companies began making its way through the House (the bill never made it to the floor). And it showed how during the 2008 financial crisis, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) — then-ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee — aggressively bought stock options based on apocalyptic briefings he had received the day before from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.
The report was based on an explosive new book by Peter Schweizer that will hit stores on Tuesday. It’s called “Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison.” (Full disclosure: Schweizer is a close friend, a former White House colleague and my business partner in a speechwriting firm, Oval Office Writers.
The “60 Minutes” story only scratches the surface of what Schweizer has uncovered. For example, Bachus was not the only member of Congress trading on nonpublic information during the financial crisis. On Sept. 16, 2008, Schweizer writes, Paulson and Bernanke held a “terrifying” closed-door meeting with congressional leaders. “The next day Congressman Jim Moran, Democrat of Virginia, a member of the Appropriations Committee, dumped his shares in ninety different companies . . . [his] most active trading day of the year.”
Rep. Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.) and her husband “dumped between $100,000 and $250,000 in Citigroup stock the day after the briefing,” Schweizer writes, and “at least ten U.S. senators, including John Kerry, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Dick Durbin, traded stock or mutual funds related to the financial industry the following day.” Durbin, Schweizer says, “attended that September 16 briefing with Paulson and Bernanke. He sold off $73,715 in stock funds the next day. Following the next terrifying closed-door briefing, on September 18, he dumped another $42,000 in stock. By doing so, Durbin joined some colleagues in saving themselves from the sizable losses that less-connected investors would experience.” Some members even made gains on their trades, at a time when ordinary Americans without insider knowledge were seeing their life savings evaporate.
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