A new concern for Democratic gadfliess: Suspicious stock trades may have been timed to Education Department announcements. Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) have written a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos “urging her to address disclosure of non-public information about important Department of Education actions.”
“The disclosures appear to be creating opportunities for insider trading of the stocks of the companies affected by the Department’s decisions,” the letter says.
The first suspicious incident of potential leaks of Department information involved trades of Navient stock on Aug.31, 2017. The trades occurred prior to the public announcement of the Department’s termination of its 2011 and 2014 Information Sharing Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. According to reports, an unknown investor, or multiple investors, purchased 872,394 shares of stock in Navient (24 percent of the student loan company’s trading volume that day) before the action was public. The elimination of MOUs led market analysts to upgrade Navient to “buy” the following business day.
In October 2017, Warren and Bonamici sent a letter to the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Jay Clayton urging him to open an SEC investigation into potential insider trading of Navient stock.
A second suspicious incident occurred in January when a Department official sent several private emails indicating that Performant Financial Corporation would be awarded a valuable student loan debt collection contract. Two hours before this decision became public, Performant’s stock jumped by almost 20 percent, with approximately 179,000 shares traded in a two-hour period. Fewer than 900 shares were traded in the four hours before that period.
“The timing of these trades – and the similar circumstances under which they occurred - raise serious questions, including whether investors, Department employees, or others with knowledge of the Department’s actions were trading based on nonpublic information from Department officials or employees,” the letter says. “We are concerned that these two instances may be indicative of procedural problems or internal control weaknesses within the Department that are allowing potential insider trading of company stocks based on nonpublic information.”
Insider trading of stocks based on nonpublic information could violate the Securities Act of 1933 or the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. In their letter, Warren, Jones, and Bonamici called on Secretary DeVos to answer detailed questions about procedures the Department has in place to prevent misuse of nonpublic information and establish clear protocols for the handling and release of information that could have the effect of moving the market.