HHS Pick Price made ‘brazen’ stock trades while his committee was under scrutiny

U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, Georgia, is Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, Georgia, is Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Price showed little restraint in his personal stock trading during the three years that federal investigators were bearing down on a key House committee on which the Republican congressman served, a review of his financial disclosures shows.

Price made dozens of health industry stock trades during a three-year investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission that focused on the Ways and Means Committee, according to financial disclosure records he filed with the House of Representatives. The investigation was considered the first test of a law passed to ban members of Congress and their staffs from trading stock based on insider information.

Price was never a target of the federal investigation, which scrutinized a top Ways and Means staffer, and no charges were brought. But ethics experts say Price’s personal trading, even during the thick of federal pressure on his committee, shows he was unconcerned about financial investments that could create an appearance of impropriety.

“He should have known better,” Richard Painter, former White House chief ethics attorney under President George W. Bush and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School said of Price’s conduct during the SEC inquiry.

As Price awaits a Senate vote on his confirmation, Senate Democrats and a number of watchdog groups have asked the SEC to investigate whether Price engaged in insider trading with some of his trades in health care companies. Price has said he abided by all ethics rules, although he acknowledged to the Senate Finance Committee that he did not consult the House Ethics Committee on trades that have now become controversial.

The SEC’s inquiry began in 2013, as it battled Ways and Means for documents to develop its case.

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A few weeks ago, the day before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the SEC quietly dropped its pursuit of committee documents without explanation, according to federal court records. No charges were brought against the staffer, Brian Sutter, who is now a health care lobbyist. Sutter’s lawyer declined to comment.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, described Price’s volume of stock trades during the SEC inquiry as “brazen,” given the congressman’s access to nonpublic information affecting the companies’ fortunes.

“The public is seeing this and they really don’t like it,” said Holman whose watchdog group recently filed complaints about Price’s stock trading with both the SEC and the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Trump administration officials and Price have dismissed questions that news reports and lawmakers have raised about stock trades coinciding with official actions to help certain companies, saying Price’s brokers chose the stocks independently and all of his conduct was transparent.

After acknowledging that he asked his broker to buy stock in an Australian drug company, he told the Senate Finance Committee that he did not direct his broker to make other trades.

“To the best of my knowledge, I have not undertaken such actions,” he wrote in response to finance committee questions. “I have abided by and adhered to all ethics and conflict of interest rules applicable to me.”

An analysis of Price’s trades shows that he bought health stocks in 2007, the first year Congress financial disclosures are posted online. In 2011, the the first year Price sat on the health subcommittee, he traded no health-related stocks, according to his financial disclosures filed with Congress.

That same year, members were facing public criticism because of a book detailing how they could use inside information and a “60 Minutes” investigation focused on how members and staff could legally use inside information to gain from their own stock trades.

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act to rein in insider trading by members and require more disclosure. Public watchdog groups suggested at the time that the law would curb the practice.

That year, after his one-year break in health care trades, Price resumed investing in health care companies.

Along with investments in technology, financial services and retail stocks, he also bought and sold stock in companies that could be impacted by actions of his subcommittee, which has a role in determining rates the government pays under the Medicare program.

Health care firms spend heavily to influence members of Congress, lobbying on health matters, funding political campaigns and seeking favor with Medicare officials who decide how much the program will pay for certain drugs and devices. The Food and Drug Administration holds similar power, approving or putting conditions on drug and device use.

Beyond his personal investments in health care companies, Price has also advocated their interests in letters to officials and proposed laws, government records show.

In 2012, disclosure records show Price sold stock in several drug firms, including more than $110,000 worth of Amgen stock. Amgen’s stock price had steadily climbed out of a recession-level slump, but Price’s sale came a few weeks before the company pleaded guilty to illegally marketing an anemia drug.

By 2013, the health subcommittee was at the center of a major conflict between Medicare, which sets Medicare Advantage rates, and the insurance industry. Medicare issued a notice early that year announcing its intention to reduce Medicare Advantage rates by 2.3 percent as part of a major cost-cutting initiative.

That prompted fierce lobbying by the health insurance industry. Members of Congress, including Price, wrote a letter to Marilyn Tavenner, then acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, protesting the rate cut, saying the decrease would “disadvantage vulnerable beneficiaries with multiple chronic conditions.”

Ultimately, Medicare decided not to cut rates but instead, to increase them. Yet an hour before Medicare announced the change, a Height Securities analyst fired off a “flash” report to 200 clients that touched off a surge of trading.

The analyst’s report said a political deal was hatched on Capitol Hill to prevent the cuts as a condition for moving forward on Tavenner’s confirmation. Medicare officials increased rates by nearly 4 percent, a change that would positively impact the bottom lines of health insurance companies.

The SEC began looking for the leak’s source, and within weeks, FBI agents began interviewing staffers at the Ways and Means Committee, court records show.

They discovered communications between Sutter and a health care lobbyist. The HHS Inspector General also began a probe, and federal prosecutors briefly examined the matter activity as well.

As the case unfolded, Price bought more health care-related stocks, according to his financial disclosures. He has testified that his broker directed all of the trades, except for his investments in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian company partly owned by Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), according to Collins’ disclosures. An HHS spokesman said Monday that Price held three broker-directed accounts.

Ethics experts have said that Price should have further distanced himself by placing his assets in a blind trust.

On April 30, 2013, Price bought $2,093 worth of stocks in Incyte, a company that develops cancer drugs; $2,076 in Onyx Pharmaceuticals, a drugmaker that would soon merge with a larger drug firm; and $2,097 in Parexel International, a consultancy that helps drugs and devices win FDA approval, according to the financial disclosure records.

The same day, Price shed shares of Express Scripts, a drug management firm, and Danaher, which makes products hospitals and doctor’s offices using for testing and diagnostics. In August of that year, he bought a $2,429 stake in Jazz Pharmaceuticals, which makes sleep and cancer drugs.

On May 6, 2014, the SEC served its first subpoena for the Ways and Means Committee documents. The committee launched a vigorous fight, appealing a federal district judge’s ruling that it should comply with the SEC subpoena.

Price continued his health stock trades, including $1,000 to $15,000 in drug firms Amgen, Eli Lilly and Co., Pfizer, Biogen and Bristol-Myers Squibb. He also bought stocks in Aetna, a major health insurer, and Athenahealth, which sells electronic medical record and medical billing software. In 2016, he also increased his investment in Innate Immunotherapeutics.

The purchase became controversial because both he and Collins bought stock in a private placement at a discounted price.

“You’re asking for trouble if you have access to nonpublic information about the health care industry and you’re buying and selling health care stocks,” Painter said.

—  Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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