Washington • As the coronavirus pandemic turned into a public health emergency in the United States, Rep. John Curtis purchased stock in several companies expected to benefit directly from responding to the outbreak or stay-at-home orders.
The purchases of stock in a now-popular videoconference provider, Zoom, a laboratory producing a rapid-result test for COVID-19, a firm tapped by the Federal Reserve to buy up bonds and a video game maker all appear apt to profit off the crisis.
At least on paper they do.
Curtis says the real story isn't as damning.
The Utah Republican says most of the purchases, including one of Abbott Laboratories stock on the day the Food and Drug Administration approved it to market a quick test for COVID-19, were made by a mutual fund manager without his prior knowledge. Same for stock buys of BlackRock Inc., which will help direct billions of dollars in bond purchases during the economic downturn.
Curtis said he personally bought a few stocks, including in Zoom, the videoconferencing software that surged after Americans were told to stay home, but he also bought others that have suffered on Wall Street as trading slid.
“Unfortunately, I’m losing as much money as anyone else,” Curtis said Friday. “In essence, I watched my portfolio, my stock portfolio, drop about 30 percent with everybody else’s.”
Curtis filed a required disclosure with the House this week of his recent stock trades, some of which showed moves that could raise questions about his intentions.
That’s especially true after the news that several senators made stock trades after a closed-door briefing on the coronavirus in February. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is now under investigation by the Justice Department.
“Members of Congress should be singularly focused on helping those who are suffering, not coming up with ways to use this crisis to game the stock market for their own financial advantage,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a government watchdog group. “The Senate Ethics Committee is already investigating similar behavior in the upper chamber, and Curtis’ questionable trades should undergo a review in the House.”
Curtis, who has posted extensive information on social media and his website to help constituents and businesses in his district navigate the coronavirus outbreak, says he’s spent only a small amount of time trading stocks, and only with one account that he uses to pay tithing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He purchased Zoom, he says, off advice from a CNBC commentator.
“The Mad Money guy,” Curtis said. “I forget his name” — Jim Cramer? — “Yeah. He has been advocating for that stock for some time.”
The House disclosure shows Curtis bought between $1,000 to $15,000 of Zoom stock — the form only gives broad ranges of amounts — on March 4. That stock closed at $116 a share the day he bought it and was worth $124 at the close of Thursday’s market. (Markets were closed Friday.)
Curtis also bought stock in Amazon on March 4, though he says that's been a solid purchase in the market for some time.
The other stock trades, Curtis said, were made by Northwestern Mutual, which includes three separate accounts for him and his wife, Sue.
Those stock purchases include Abbott Laboratories (up about $12 a share from purchase date until now); BlackRock (up $37); video game maker Activision Blizzard (up less than $1); and Costco (up about $15). All purchases were in the range of $1,000 to $15,000, the disclosures show.
Curtis said he was notified after the stocks were traded and they were handled by a manager.
“I didn't even know I owned Abbott stocks, BlackRock, Activision, Costco, everything but the Zoom and Amazon, I was never consulted on,” Curtis said.
The congressman added that he has not had any classified briefings recently on the coronavirus and gleaned all his information from public sources.
“Any news I’m getting, I’m getting from the news and not from briefings,” he said.
None of Utah’s other members of Congress appears to have made any recent stock trades, according to the latest disclosures filed with Congress.