Mar 23, 2020 - Economy & Business

The story behind Ron Johnson's stock sale

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Staff

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was one of several senators who came under fire last week after disclosing that they had sold large amounts of stock just before large swaths of the American economy shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The big picture: Many of Johnson's colleagues should indeed be scrutinized by the SEC and/or the Department of Justice, but Johnson himself hasn't done anything worthy of investigation.

The backdrop: Johnson's job before becoming a U.S. senator was CEO of Pacur, an Oshkosh, Wis.-based plastic sheeting manufacturer that had been founded by his brother-in-law under a different name (and with a different primary product).

  • The pair sold Pacur in 1986 but Johnson remained an employee. In 1997 he bought the company back.
  • Johnson was elected to the Senate in 2010.
  • A source says that Pacur began seeking to sell in early 2019, hiring an investment bank to launch an auction process that would result in bids from multiple private equity firms and strategics.
  • Over the holidays it picked an offer from Gryphon Investors. Papers were formally signed in early January with March 1 set as the closing date.
  • Gryphon's purchase of a majority stake always included Johnson's entire remaining position, which the source says was 5%. It bought the rest of its shares from other Johnson family members, who rolled over some of their stock into a minority stake.

The bottom line: This was a vanilla private equity deal that was negotiated before almost anyone had heard of coronavirus. Johnson, who has said several wrong-headed things about the pandemic, didn't trade on insider information.

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Lawmakers come under scrutiny for stock sales

Sens. Diane Feinstein, Ron Johnson and Kelly Loeffler. Photos: Getty Images

Several U.S. senators have come under fire for making large stock trades while President Trump and other federal officials publicly downplayed the novel coronavirus threat, but after the lawmakers received a private briefing on the potential seriousness of COVID-19.

The state of play: The trades have sparked insider trading accusations, but it's impossible to know for sure without an investigation by the Justice Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission.