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Fact Check: Loeffler-Warnock Runoff Starts With Attack Ads
About a week after Georgia’s special election headed to a runoff, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, both launched questionable attacks that the other candidate has disputed:
- An ad from Loeffler claimed that Warnock “hosted a rally for Communist dictator Fidel Castro” in 1995. But her campaign has provided no evidence that Warnock, who was a youth pastor for a Harlem-based church at the time, was involved in inviting Cuba’s former dictator to speak at that church more than two decades ago.
- Loeffler’s ad also said Warnock “called police thugs and gangsters,” leaving out that his comments were specific to the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, a young Black man who was shot and killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His campaign said he wasn’t referring to all officers.
- An ad from Warnock claimed that Loeffler “immediately” began “dumping stocks” after a January Senate briefing about the coronavirus. But his campaign provided no evidence she made that investment decision. Loeffler has said her family’s investments are managed by third-party advisers without her input.
The race between Loeffler, Georgia’s junior senator, and Warnock, a political newcomer, is one of two runoff elections in the state that will decide which political party has control of the U.S. Senate during the next session of Congress.
Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, was appointed to the seat she currently occupies after Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson retired in December 2019 for health reasons. The winner of the upcoming Jan. 5 election will serve the last two years of Isakson’s six-year term that started in early 2017.
Loeffler’s campaign released its ad attacking Warnock on Nov. 12. So far it has aired over 1,900 times at a cost of more than $900,000, according to Advertising Analytics.
It claims he “called police thugs and gangsters, hosted a rally for Communist dictator Fidel Castro, and praised Marxism in speeches and writings.”
“Raphael Warnock will give the radicals total control,” the ad’s narrator says.
In a 2015 sermon, Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, specifically said police in Ferguson, Missouri — where Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old Black man was shot and killed by a white officer in August 2014 — displayed “a kind of gangster and thug mentality.” He was not talking about all law enforcement, his campaign told us in an email.
As for the claim about Castro, the decades-long leader of Cuba who died in November 2016, the Loeffler campaign points to an October 1995 speech he gave at New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Warnock worked at the time.
But Warnock — while avoiding saying whether he attended the event or not — has denied that he had any say in inviting Castro to speak.
In a Nov. 15 interview, for example, Warnock told CNN’s Jake Tapper: “I was a youth pastor. I had nothing to do with that program. I did not make any decisions regarding the program. I have never met the Cuban dictator, and so I’m not connected to him.”
At the time, the Associated Press reported that the event with Castro was organized by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizing, which the wire service said had long advocated lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Abyssinian’s pastor, the Rev. Calvin Butts, spoke at the event.
The Loeffler campaign didn’t respond to our request for evidence that Warnock was involved in the church hosting Castro.
Warnock’s anti-Loeffler ad began running statewide on Nov. 13. To date it has aired more than 1,300 times at a cost of more than $1 million, according to Advertising Analytics.
The narrator of the ad says: “January 6, billionaire Kelly Loeffler is sworn into office and over the next 18 days doesn’t make a single stock transaction. Then Loeffler receives a confidential briefing on the threat of coronavirus and immediately starts dumping stocks. As Kelly Loeffler downplays the threat publicly, she makes sale after sale, getting rid of $3.1 million before the market crashes.”
Federal financial disclosures Loeffler filed do show that between $1.3 million and $3 million in stocks she and her husband, New York Stock Exchange Chairman Jeff Sprecher, jointly owned were sold between Jan. 24 — when senators received a private briefing about the novel coronavirus — and mid-February.
But Loeffler, who, combined with Sprecher, has an estimated net worth of as much as $800 million, said the decision to unload those stocks and purchase a few more was made independently by third-party advisers overseeing the couple’s stock holdings — not her.
After the Daily Beast news website broke the story about Loeffler’s stocks on March 19, the senator first attempted to set the record straight in two early morning tweets on March 20. “This is a ridiculous and baseless attack,” she tweeted. “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”
Loeffler gave similar explanations in subsequent television interviews and an April 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which she provided more detail about the investors and announced that — in an attempt “to move beyond the distraction” — she and her husband would divest from their individual stocks.
“I have never used any confidential information I received while performing my Senate duties as a means of making a private profit. Nor has anyone in my family,” she wrote in the Journal column. “My family’s investments are managed by third-party advisers at Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Sepio Capital and Wells Fargo. These professionals buy and sell stocks on our behalf. We don’t direct trading in these accounts. These trades are disclosed routinely and publicly in reports to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, in full compliance with transparency laws.”
In fact, the Senate’s ethics panel investigated allegations that Loeffler may have violated federal laws or Senate rules against insider trading and found no evidence that she had. The Justice Department also reportedly dropped its own investigation of Loeffler and two other senators — Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican — who reported selling large amounts of stock after the January briefing.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with FactCheck.org a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.