Maelstrom No. 2 is an ongoing uproar over stock transactions Loeffler and her husband executed after she attended an early closed-door Senate briefing on the coronavirus. The novice senator is up for election in November, and the controversy threatens to make her one of the first political casualties of the global pandemic.
In other words, welcome to Washington.
Loeffler’s turbulent debut on the national stage has obscured a backstory with a compelling arc: the rise of the small-town daughter of a moderately prosperous Illinois farming family to the heights of the business world. A woman whose financial success allowed her to buy her own jet. A polished and telegenic former investor relations pro with an estimated fortune of $500 million, which makes her the wealthiest member of Congress.
In an extended interview, Loeffler defended herself in the same measured, anodyne tones she perfected on the earnings calls for husband Jeffrey Sprecher’s company, Intercontinental Exchange. The massive firm, which she helped build, owns a large roster of financial markets throughout the world, including futures exchanges and the New York Stock Exchange, by far the largest stock-trading institution on planet Earth.
“I can’t say anything that I would have done differently,” the 49-year-old senator told The Washington Post, reflecting on her stock trades. “I’ve learned that everything is going to be used as a political opportunity. That’s been reinforced.”
Collins, her leading opponent, has cast the stock story as a signal moment and a referendum on Loeffler’s ethics. He calls the stock transactions “distasteful” and says he expects them to be an issue in the November election.
“It was really horrible for all of us who are trying to work to help the American people at a time at which it appears likely that something was used to make a personal gain,” Collins said in an interview with The Post.
On its face, the timing of the investment deals — which Loeffler said were made without her knowledge by her investment advisers — have raised suspicions. Her congressional disclosures, which require senators to reveal only a range of transaction amounts rather than precise figures, state that she and her husband sold between $1.2 million and $3.1 million in stocks in the three weeks after the Jan. 24 coronavirus briefing. Those sales, which were revealed on a Senate disclosure report in mid-March, took place before the stock market cratered amid concerns about the pandemic.
But interviews and a review of both public and previously undisclosed documents that Loeffler provided at The Post’s request paint a more nuanced picture. A detailed summary prepared by the senator’s office of the couple’s stock sales shows they add up to $1.8 million, a figure closer to the low end of the range she’d reported. In isolation, those sales could support a pandemic-profiteer narrative.
But, as it turns out, Loeffler’s husband was making bullish moves at the same time, betting that the market would go up a few months later, according to previously undisclosed summaries reviewed by The Post. Those moves involved entering into sophisticated financial contracts, known as “puts,” that would benefit him if the stocks rose and risked big losses if the market crashed.
Loeffler’s husband committed to puts in stocks, a process known as “selling puts,” worth almost the same amount as the couple’s stock sales: $1.679 million, according to the summary.
The technique that the couple appears to be employing is a form of hedging designed to cushion an investor against risk during a time of volatility. The puts are intended to protect their portfolio from the market’s ups and downs. That investment strategy continued in the next four weeks, a period included in a second round of disclosure filings made March 31. During that time, Loeffler and her husband stepped up their stock purchases, buying more than $500,000 worth of stock. They also sold more than $800,000 in stock, while simultaneously entering into put contracts to limit the risks of the stocks that they sold.
A pair of those transactions have drawn additional scrutiny: the quick-turnaround sale of recently purchased stock in a travel booking company on the day before Trump’s March 11 evening address announcing a ban on flights to the United States from Europe.
It remains to be seen whether their strategy will pay off. The stocks they’ve sold have lost nearly a third of their value, meaning the couple avoided taking a big hit on them. But the put contracts, at least for now, look like bad moves. Those stocks have lost about a quarter of their value. The downturn could cost Loeffler’s husband hundreds of thousands — but only if the market doesn’t recover before the contracts expire this summer and fall. If the market drops further, they will have made the wrong bet.
Loeffler, who once specialized in explaining complex financial information to investment professionals and seasoned business journalists, has struggled to quell the controversy. In a string of television appearances, she’s focused primarily on explaining that the stock deals were made by “third-party advisers”— but she’s barely touched on the difficult-to-explain fact that the advisers were also making deals that were based on hopes that the market would rise.
“It’s just one of those things that gets out of control,” she said.
Wet straw and weedkiller scented Kelly Loeffler's childhood. On her family's 2,000-acre corn and soybean farm in tiny Stanford, Ill., she and her brother spent early mornings "beanwalking," tramping down the half-mile rows of soybeans and yanking out prickly thistle and butterprint weeds. In the evenings, the fourth-generation farm kids fed cattle. Their punctilious mother made them fill out timecards — an early lesson in the how-tos of business.
Loeffler saw a “quiet beauty” in farm life. But as soon as she could drive, she wanted respite from the hot fields in the summer and took a job waitressing at a bustling Italian restaurant near Illinois State University in Bloomington, Il., 20 minutes away.
“I just wanted air conditioning by that point,” she said.
Her high school classmates called her “Fluff” because of her poofy, feathered hair and “NBC,” short for “newborn calf,” because of her gawky play on the basketball team.
In her 20s, she says, she leaned on her parents for “a few hundred dollars here and there” and sometimes had to juggle credit card balances to make ends meet, while she began hopscotching states seeking ever-better jobs in the auto industry and in mortgage banking.
She says she still had car and college loans in 2002 when she landed a job in Atlanta at Intercontinental Exchange, a company that had been founded two years earlier and is better known as ICE. She points to those days as a way of tempering sideways glances at her vast wealth.
“It’s politically convenient to paint me as out of touch,” she said, “but I’m probably more in touch than the majority of people in Washington.”
At ICE, she became close with Sprecher, the company’s founder, who is 15 years older than her, bonding over their shared Midwestern roots. Initially, she says, they both had other “love interests,” but over late-night dinners after long hours at the office, the seeds of a romance began to germinate.
Sprecher went to the company’s board, Loeffler says, and told the directors that he planned to start dating her. When they became a couple, Loeffler says, she told him, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m still going to work here afterward.”
By 2004, they were married.
In the years to come, the company saw explosive growth, going public in 2005, then scooping up exchanges all around the world.
Their wealth was swelling so much that Loeffler had cash for side projects. In 2010, she and a partner bought the Atlanta Dream, a professional women’s basketball team, becoming the first women to own a major sports franchise in the city.
More recently, she garnered a $1 million-a-year salary as head of an ICE subsidiary launched in 2010 named BAKKT, which is a platform for trading cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. (Loeffler stepped down from her position at BAKKT and her seat on the ICE board before entering the Senate.)
ICE, which had started as a nine-person company, now employs 7,000, Loeffler said.
“It’s difficult,” she said, “for even Jeff and I to comprehend where we are.”
Last summer, Georgia's senior senator, Johnny Isakson, announced he was leaving office because of ill health. Some influential conservative commentators were not pleased when the state's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, skipped over Trump's first choice and selected Loeffler, making her the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate for Georgia in nearly a century, and the first-ever Republican woman.
“Brian Kemp is appointing [someone] who appears to be an untested, big-Republican Romney donor described by many as a ‘RINO,’ ” huffed Fox News host Sean Hannity, employing an acronym that means “Republican in name only.”
A donation Sprecher made to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign worked against the Georgia Republican. But in her early moves after taking office, Loeffler sought to position herself as pro-Trump. She celebrated her inauguration over dinner with family at Trump International Hotel in Washington. In her first speech she said she supported the president’s U.S.-Mexico border wall and his appointment of conservative judges. (Loeffler has a cat named Sandra, after retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.)
Loeffler had been in office only 23 days when Collins announced he’d run against her. The state’s election in November is open, including both Republicans and Democrats, and will go to a runoff in January if no candidate earns a majority of the votes. The race now features a handful of well-positioned Democrats, including Matt Lieberman, an Atlanta educator, who is the son of former longtime senator and onetime vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.
By her second month in office, Loeffler was once again dealing with nettlesome headlines. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that she’d bought a luxury jet and was using it to travel to political events and to commute to Washington. Amid disdain by her political detractors, her office portrayed the purchase as a money-saver for taxpayers, who wouldn’t have to pay for her travel.
Loeffler’s brother, who runs the much-expanded family farm, didn’t understand the fuss.
“To me, it’s like a station wagon,” Brian Loeffler said. “It’s a work vehicle.”
The senator said she saw it all coming.
“From a media and policy perspective,” Loeffler said, “it doesn’t surprise me that our success has been attacked and politicized.”
On March 19, the Daily Beast popped a big story, headlined "Sen. Kelly Loeffler Dumped Millions in Stock After Coronavirus Briefing." The gist of the scoop was that Loeffler had been selling stock while playing down the dangers of the coronavirus, and that one of only two stock purchases during that time was in Citrix, a company that produces teleworking equipment and stood to benefit from offices closing because of the virus.
The episode took an odd turn when Loeffler waited until nearly half past midnight to respond, with a wee-hours missive that called the report a “ridiculous and baseless attack.”
Loeffler’s predicament was exacerbated by the appearance that she was part of a pattern. Earlier news reports had revealed that another Republican senator, Richard Burr of North Carolina, had sold hotel stock after receiving the same Senate briefing she’d attended. (Burr, who has denied wrongdoing, is now under investigation by the Justice Department; Loeffler says she has not been contacted by law enforcement authorities.)
As the fallout was piling up, Loeffler called her brother and told him, “We’re working through this.” The unflappable senator was “very matter of fact,” Brian Loeffler said.
Loeffler was getting slammed by commentators, but powerful forces in Republican politics have her back.
“The NRSC supports Sen. Loeffler 100 percent,” said Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Liberal journalistic malpractice will not change that, and there is a special place in political hell for any so-called Republican who perpetuates liberal lies against another Republican during a national crisis in a Hail Mary attempt for political gain.”
With the story exploding, Loeffler has gone into damage-control mode, calmly running through her talking points, often using the same phrases in different interviews: She and her husband don’t make trade decisions, they weren’t informed until mid-February, and she has a long track record of complying with investment rules.
What makes it harder is that her explanation will only fly if you believe her. There’s no smoking-gun document to clear or convict her. It’s her word against her doubters.
She has also shown that she has mastered the time-honored political tradition of not answering all the questions.
“Who are these third-party advisers?” Fox News host Ed Henry asked during Loeffler’s first televised interview. She ignored the query, saying, “Well, certainly I’m not involved in the decisions around buying and selling.”
CNBC got nowhere asking the same question. Fox News host Tucker Carlson — who has made headlines by calling for Burr’s resignation and prosecution — asked twice with no luck. She wouldn’t identify them for this article, either.
That vagueness has lent a bit of intrigue, which she added to in a Bloomberg News interview when she obliquely mentioned that she and her husband “have an employee in our personal family office that intermediates with the advisers.”
Loeffler had also been painted as playing down the coronavirus at a time when government insiders thought the threat was real. But in her defense, her staff points to remarks made around the time of the Senate briefing by Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“The American people should not be worried or frightened by this. It’s a very, very low risk to the United States, but it’s something that we as public health officials need to take very seriously,” Fauci said on “The CATS Roundtable,” a popular podcast, two days after he and other officials briefed senators.
Loeffler is also being more aggressive about explaining the complicated put contracts, which might have been open to misinterpretation because they were listed as “sales” on her first batch of disclosure statements. In her most recent disclosure, filed March 31, the contracts are laid out more explicitly, and her staff has shared more-detailed information about the trades with a few reporters.
Even with those renewed efforts, she’s left with a problem that has bedeviled Washington politicians for eons: a narrative that has taken root and spread.
“I don’t think I have to bring it up a whole lot,” Collins, her leading opponent, said in an interview. “The people of Georgia are bringing it up. The people of the nation are bringing it up.”
Loeffler’s life got even messier March 31 when she reported millions more in stock transactions.
Like everything in her financial and political life, it’s complicated: Loeffler sold more than $6 million in ICE stock and bought more than $6 million. The transactions were set in motion as part of an agreement when she left the company in December.
Before she’d entered the Senate.
Before she’d become the unwilling star of a pandemic story line.
“I thought I was here to break a barrier for women in Georgia in the Senate. It’s now much bigger,” she said. “Our Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators. People who would come from the private sector, have that experience, understand what’s it like — not to sign the back of a paycheck, but the front of a paycheck.”
The test that lies before her is whether she can refocus voters on that message and untangle all the rest. The answer will come in November.
(Corrections: Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was identified as director of the National Institutes of Health in an earlier version of this story. The earlier version also reported that Loeffler made a donation to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. The donation was made by her husband. This version has been corrected.)
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.