This article was produced in partnership with The Guardian.
As they set national policy on important issues such as climate change, tech monopolies, medical debt, and income inequality, U.S. senators have glaring conflicts of interest.
A Sludge analysis of personal financial disclosure data as of Aug. 16 has found that 51 senators and their spouses have as much as $96 million personally invested in corporate stocks in five key sectors: communications/electronics; defense; energy and natural resources; finance, insurance and real estate; and health. The majority of these stocks come from public companies, and some are private.
Overall, the senators are invested in 338 companies—including tech giants such as Apple and Microsoft, oil and gas giants including ExxonMobil and Antero Midstream, telecom companies including Verizon, and major defense contractors such as Boeing—in the five sectors as categorized by Sludge.
Congressional financial disclosures present investments in dollar ranges, not exact amounts, so all data in this report comes in ranges, some very wide. The median stock investment range in the five sectors for the 51 senators is between $100,000 and $365,000, while the average range of the investments is between $551,000 and nearly $1,874,000.
Not only are the senators far wealthier than most of their constituents, but they’re in prime position to increase their wealth via policymaking.
It’s not illegal for members of Congress to have personal financial stakes in the industries on which they legislate. But such investments raise questions about lawmakers’ motivations. If a representative on the House Financial Services Committee owns hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in Bank of America, how might this investment affect their questioning of Bank of America’s CEO in a hearing? Could it influence how they legislate and vote on banking issues?
While some members of Congress do try to limit possible conflicts of interest—Climate Crisis Committee Chair Kathy Castor sold her and her husband’s sizeable investment in a mutual fund with holdings in fossil fuel-burning utilities after Sludge reported the shares—many members claim their personal finances could never influence their conduct as elected representatives of the people, or fail to acknowledge concerns about their finances.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, owns between $1 million and $5 million worth of non-public stock in his family coal business, Enersystems, making him the only Democratic senator who is directly profiting from the environmentally devastating coal business. Despite pressure from the left, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made Manchin ranking member of the committee, and Manchin did not divest his coal holdings.
Some senators want to do away with these perceived conflicts of interest. Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced anti-corruption legislation in August 2018 that included a ban on members of Congress, senior congressional staff, Cabinet secretaries, White House staff, federal judges, and other officials from owning individual stocks, bonds, commodities, futures, and other types of securities while in office. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced the Ban Conflicted Trading Act in December to prevent members of Congress and senior staff from trading individual corporate stocks.
This report is based on Sludge’s living database of federal lawmakers’ current financial investments, the only known, up-to-date database of its kind. Annual and periodic financial disclosures, though public, are difficult to access and presented in different formats, including low-resolution scans of handwritten documents, and are riddled with inconsistencies. Sludge’s database has spawned countless conflict-of-interest stories.
Financial Firms Lead the Way
Senators own between $28.1 and $95.6 million worth of stock in the five sectors examined by Sludge/The Guardian. They have the most money invested in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector due in part to Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) investment in Westbrand, Inc., a private holding company that owns multiple banks, worth between roughly $5 million and $25 million. Hoeven has other large stock investments in the sector including securities and investment firms BlackRock (between $250,001 and $500,000) and Blackstone ($100,001 to $250,000), and insurance companies such as MetLife ($100,002 to $200,000) and Prudential Financial ($100,001 to $250,000).
Altogether, 37 senators and their spouses own between $12.8 million and $48.2 million worth of stock in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector. They have the most money invested in the commercial banking industry, between $8.3 million and $32.9 million.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, owns between $1 million and $5 million worth of stock in private real estate insurance firm Tuscaloosa Title Company. Shelby sits on the Housing, Transportation, and Community Development Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Housing and Urban Development, affordable housing, foreclosure mitigation, and other housing matters, and the Securities, Insurance, and Investment Subcommittee, which oversees the insurance industry.
Nine other Banking Committee members are personally invested in the financial companies they oversee, including:
- Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), a member of the Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection Subcommittee—which oversees banks—who owns stock in Regions Financial Corporation ($50,001 to $100,000) and MetLife ($15,001 to $50,000);
- Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), a member of the Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection Subcommittee and the Securities, Insurance, and Investment Subcommittee, who owns stock in JPMorgan Chase ($15,001 to $50,000) and insurance firm Prudential Financial ($1,001 to $15,000);
- Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who owns stock in MetLife ($1,001 to $15,000);
- Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, who owns stock worth between $2,002 to $30,000 each in Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bancorp, and Wells Fargo, as well as insurance giant Allstate;
- Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a member of the Securities, Insurance, and Investment Subcommittee, who owns between $361,000 and close to $1.1 million worth of stock in the finance, insurance and real estate sector, including commercial banks Bank of America, Bank of New York Mellon, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Regions Financial Corporation, U.S. Bancorp, and Wells Fargo, credit companies Mastercard and Visa, and insurance firms AFLAC and Prudential Financial;
- Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who purchased between $250,001 and $500,000 worth of private stock in hotel investment fund Bird Dog Hospitality Fund 2, which is run by private equity firm Bird Dog Equity Partners, in late March;
- Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who owns stock in Allstate ($15,001 to $50,000);
- Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a member of the Securities, Insurance, and Investment Subcommittee, who owns stock in insurance firms Fidelity National Financial ($1,001 to $15,000) and Marsh & McLennan Companies ($50,001 to $100,000); investment banking company Piper Jaffray Companies ($2,002 to $31,000), commercial banks TCF Financial Corporation ($100,001 to $250,000) and U.S. Bancorp ($165,003 to $400,000); and financial firm Fidelity National Information Services ($50,001 to $100,000); and
- Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), chair of the Securities, Insurance, and Investment Subcommittee, who owns a total of between $30,002 and $100,000 worth of stock in real estate investment trusts Phillips Edison Grocery Center REIT I and Apartment Investment and Management Company and sold his investment in Revere Bank last month;
The same phenomenon of senators owning stock in industries they oversee exists in many other Senate committees. Senators have between $8.3 million and $22 million invested in the communications and electronics sector, including up to $4.2 million in internet companies and as much as $4.1 million in computer software businesses. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet and the Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection, owns between $53,000 and $194,000 worth of Microsoft stock, as much as $99,000 of Intel stock, and up to $30,000 each in AT&T and Verizon stock.
Sen. Jackie Rosen, who is also on both subcommittees, owns between $310,000 and $1 million worth of communications and electronics stock. Her largest potential investments are as much as $265,000 in Amazon, up to $115,000 in AT&T, and $100,000 in software company Adobe.
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In addition to potentially $3.1 million invested in telecom companies, Rick Scott, also on the Communications, Technology, Innovation Subcommittee, has as much as $253,000 invested in Apple stock and up to $103,000 each in Microsoft and Alphabet. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has between $62,000 and $230,000 invested in the communications and electronics sector, including up to $50,000 worth of stock in Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and AT&T. Moran owns stock in Alphabet (up to $30,000), Apple (up to $65,000), Microsoft (up to $30,000), Sprint (up to $15,000), and Verizon (up to $30,000).
Energy and natural resources companies come up frequently in the senators’ investments; members own between $3.5 million and $13.9 million in stocks in this sector. As the world hurtles towards a potential climate catastrophe by 2030, senators own as much as $6.1 million worth of stock in oil and gas companies. In addition, members have between $1.1 million $2.8 million invested in electric and natural gas utilities stocks.
While medical debt piles up and tens of millions of Americans are still uninsured, senators own as much as $9.5 million in health sector companies including insurers UnitedHealth Group and Anthem, pharmaceutical companies Abbott Labs, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer, and pharmacy benefit manager CVS Health.
Tech Stocks Are Most Popular
While the financial sector has drawn the most investment dollars from senators, stocks in the internet and computer software and hardware industries are the most popular. Fifteen senators own stock in Apple and in Microsoft; eleven are invested in Amazon and in Intel, and 10 own stock in Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Republicans tend to be more eager to invest in corporate stocks; of the 25 most popular public stocks, Democrats invested outnumber Republicans in only three companies: General Electric, MetLife, and Pfizer. (General Electric is classified in the energy and natural resources sector for this report, due to its energy subsidiary, GE Power, which operates an oilfield services division.)
Overall, GOP senators own more in stock investments—between $18.8 and $63.7 million—than Democrats, whose stock ownership is worth roughly half of that range, between $9.3 million and $31.6 million.
Aside from the Wireless Telecom Group, in which Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has as much as $3 million invested, the top public stocks by investment amount are Apple (between $798,000 and $2.2 million), Microsoft ($588,000 to $2.2 million), and Alphabet ($577,000 to $1.8 million). Ownership in Amazon, which is vying for a $10 billion Defense contract, is not far behind at between $423,000 and $1.3 million.
Wells Fargo, the financial giant that has paid numerous fines for its frequently fraudulent practices, is the bank that has attracted the most investment dollars from senators: as much as $1.5 million. Also among the top stocks are telecom companies Crown Castle International ($385,000 to $1.2 million), Verizon ($407,000 to $1 million), and AT&T ($250,000 to $925,000).
Senators are also heavily invested in oil and gas companies ExxonMobil (as much as $856,000), Antero Midstream (up to $800,000), and Enterprise Products Partners (up to $718,000).
Breaking Down the Senators’ Wealth
Because of Hoeven’s big investment in Westbrand Bank Holding Company, he has by far the most money in corporate stocks from the five sectors analyzed by Sludge/The Guardian. But although his overall assets total in the tens of millions, he’s not the richest senator; a number of very wealthy members have millions of dollars worth of non-stock investments in hedge funds, private equity firms, mutual funds, private businesses, mining lands, and real estate properties.
Rick Scott’s total assets, not taking into account liabilities, are worth at least $178 million, but the former health executive and venture capitalist’s stock investments in the five sectors are worth between $2.8 and $5 million. Former tech investor and telecom founder Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has assets worth between $76 million and $342 million, but his stock investments in the five sectors come to a maximum of just over $1 million. Private equity titan Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), for example, who co-founded Bain Capital, owns assets worth between $77 million and $276 million, but his stock investments in the five sectors total only up to $214,000.
In terms of total stock ownership in the five sectors, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who along with husband Richard Blum, an investment banker, is second, with up to $7 million invested in the five sectors. Blum’s purchase of as much as $250,000 worth of Facebook stock three months before his wife questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under scrutiny after Sludge reported the trade. He has since sold off the stock, but the couple still owns up to $3.3 million worth of communications and electronics sector stock, which is heavily represented their state of California, including between $150,001 and $650,000 invested in Alphabet.
Feinstein is followed by Perdue, who owns as much as $6.4 million invested. In addition to his considerable financial sector stock, the former Dollar General CEO has stock holdings worth as much as $2.8 million in the energy and natural resources sector and up to $2 million in the communications and electronics sector.
The following chart illustrates the stock investments of senators by company, based on the percentage of their total holdings in the five sectors.
In 2018, Sludge built a tool that scrapes the House and Senate financial disclosure portals. On Aug. 16, we ran the scrape, after which we manually entered data from a number of handwritten reports.
The data comes in two sets: one for the 2018 annual reports, which cover the entire calendar year, and another for the periodic transaction reports, which log stock purchases or sales within 45 days of the trade. By adding in 2019 purchases and sales with the 2018 annual data, we arrived at finalized totals as of Aug. 16. For stock sales marked “Sale (Full),” we removed the corresponding 2018 investments, but for partial or unspecified sales, we left it to the math.
Because Sludge regularly reports on the finance, tech, energy, defense, and telecom industries, we selected the five sectors to focus on. With the final numbers, we classified the stock investments by sector and industry, basing these assignments on those used by the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website. However, in some cases, we altered an industry or sector or created assignments for companies not in CRP’s database.
After limiting the data to just 2018 annual reports and 2019 PTRs, there were 7,386 entries from the “Assets” portion of the disclosures. A portion of those were labeled as stock investments, and a portion of those investments fell in the five sectors. That’s the data we used for this report.
All graphics were made using Tableau Desktop.
This article was produced in partnership with The Guardian.