-- Top Senate Democrats are calling on the House Office of Congressional Ethics and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Georgia Rep. Tom Price's trading activity on health-related stocks while serving in Congress and working on health care issues.
He also sponsored a number of health-related bills during that time.
On Wednesday, consumer advocacy group Public Citizen sent a letter to the OCE and the SEC requesting an investigation of whether Price's trading violated the STOCK Act passed by Congress in 2012, meant to prevent members of Congress from trading on information not available to the public.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, the new Senate Democratic leader, said Price "didn't simply vote on health care bills" but "championed them," and said his access to health care information as a member of the Budget and the Ways and Means Committees was "second to none."
Schumer stopped short of saying Price violated the STOCK Act.
"We don't know if he broke the law, but there certainly [are] enough serious questions to warrant a serious investigation before any hearing is held on Congressman Price to become secretary of HHS," Schumer said. "This is serious stuff. And that's why we need full hearings with plenty of questions and full disclosure."
Democrats have not put forward any evidence that Price acted in an illegal manner.
Both the OCE and SEC declined to comment on the letter sent by Public Citizen. (The OCE is only permitted to investigate current members of Congress, so if Price is confirmed it would have to drop any ongoing investigation.)
House Republicans targeted the OCE earlier this week. The conference tried to vote on a measure to limit the watchdog's independence and ended up scuttling the vote after pushback from constituents and President-elect Trump.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, whose Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is responsible for reviewing the HHS nominee, has met with Price, but wouldn't divulge any conversation about his trading activity.
Murray said Democrats want to know whether the transactions reviewed by the Wall Street Journal and Public Citizen were initiated by Price or a broker, what nonpublic information he had when the trades were made and how much he profited from his transactions since 2012.
Speaking on the Senate floor today, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused Democrats of politicizing the nomination process. The Senate Finance Committee formally handles the HHS secretary confirmation.
"By all accounts, the Finance Committee’s longstanding vetting process is exceptionally thorough and fair. And, it is deeply regrettable that some of our colleagues would try to undermine that process and not provide the incoming Trump Administration’s nominees the same respect and regard that our committee provided for nominees in the Obama Administration," he said.
The committee has received three years of tax returns and a completed questionnaire, and is the midst of its vetting process. The panel has not yet received final financial disclosures from the Office of Government Ethics.
"If you're not a public official, making a smart investment is just that," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. "If you are a public official, however, at a minimum you have to be sensitive to appearances of conflicts of interests."
The Senate HELP panel traditionally holds courtesy hearings for HHS secretary nominees. An aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the committee's chairman, says Price is expected to testify before lawmakers on Jan. 18.
Phil Blando, a Trump transition spokesman, called Democrats' calls for an investigation a "stunt."
"The reality is that Dr. Price’s 20-year career as an orthopedic surgeon and a fiscal conservative make him uniquely qualified to lead HHS. Today’s stunt is simply an effort to deflect attention away from ObamaCare’s dismal record, including reduced choices and $700 billion in Medicare cuts," he said in a statement.
Price is one of the eight Trump Cabinet nominees Senate Democrats are targeting for more thorough background information. They could slow down the confirmation process if more details aren't provided, according to a senior Democratic aide.