White House picnic email led to congressman’s indictment

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WASHINGTON (AP) — New York Rep. Chris Collins was one of the first House members to back Donald Trump for president in 2016 and quickly became a ubiquitous surrogate for the future president on cable television. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced indictments of the Buffalo-area congressman, his son and a friend on charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Collins pleaded not guilty.

Some snapshots of the relationship and the case:

Early adopter

Collins, 68, backed Trump on Feb. 24, 2016 — well before it was clear Trump had a shot at winning the Republican nomination in a crowded field of seasoned politicians. But that’s why, Collins said at the time, he was backing Trump. He said the country needs “a chief executive, not a chief politician.”

Collins became one of Trump’s most ardent and public backers, promoting him as a businessman who would boost the economic fortunes of areas that have suffered. He spent time in the Trump family box at the Republican National Convention and seconded Trump’s nomination there. In the process, his status rose on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. “Truly my profile, both locally, nationally and within my conference, is significantly more visible,” Collins told Politico earlier this year. “I’ve enjoyed it.”

Loyal soldier

Collins staunchly backed Trump’s biggest legislative achievement, a $1.5 trillion tax cut. The congressman’s effusiveness, however, got some blowback after he told reporters that pressure from donors was a factor in passing the bill. “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Collins said. Reeling from the failure of the GOP effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, Congress passed the tax cut and Trump signed the measure into law in December.

The congressman has also echoed Trump’s call for an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian campaign collusion. The president has called the Mueller probe a “witch hunt” and blamed it on Democrats.

“I share President Trump’s continued frustration as the left continues to try to nullify the 2016 presidential election with claims of Russian interference,” Collins said.

The case

Collins, a conservative county executive first elected to the House in 2012, has denied any wrongdoing in his involvement with Innate Immunotherapeutics Limited, a biotechnology company based in Sydney, Australia. He was company’s largest shareholder, with nearly 17 percent of its shares, and sat on its board.

When the House Ethics Committee began investigating his trading of the stock a year ago, his spokeswoman called the probe a “partisan witch hunt.”

On Wednesday, Collins was arrested and charged with conspiracy, securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. Prosecutors filed parallel charges against his son, Cameron Collins, and a third person, Stephen Zarsky.

Republican U.S. Rep. Christopher Collins, center, leaves federal court, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, in New York. Rep. Collins of western New York state has been indicted on charges that he used inside information about a biotechnology company to make illicit stock trades (Mary Altaffer, AP Photo)
Republican U.S. Rep. Christopher Collins, center, leaves federal court, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, in New York. Rep. Collins of western New York state has been indicted on charges that he used inside information about a biotechnology company to make illicit stock trades (Mary Altaffer, AP Photo)

The picnic connection

A carousel spun on the White House’s South Lawn on June 22, 2017, as Trump paid tribute to the “wonderful tradition” of the annual congressional picnic and said he and his wife have “developed friendships with some really great people - mostly.”

Among those gathered under the twinkling lights was Collins, whose reply to an email that night triggered what would become the indictment unsealed Wednesday.

Collins received an email from Innate’s chief executive saying that a trial of a drug the company developed to treat multiple sclerosis was a clinical failure.

According to the indictment, Collins responded to the email saying: “Wow. Makes no sense. How are these results even possible???” The charging document said Collins then called his son, Cameron, and, after several missed calls, they spoke for more than six minutes.


The next morning, according to the indictment, Cameron Collins began selling his shares, unloading enough over a two-day period to avoid $570,900 in losses before a public announcement of the drug trial results.

Prosecutors said the son traded on the inside information and passed it to Zarsky. Their combined trades avoided over $768,000 in losses, authorities said. They said Zarsky traded on the information and tipped off at least three other people.

After the public announcement of the failure in the drug trial, the company’s stock plunged 92 percent.

The fallout

In an email obtained by The Buffalo News, Collins vowed to his supporters Wednesday that he will stay in office, run for re-election and fight to clear his name.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Collins would be removed from the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee “until the matter is settled.”

Trump has no connection to the Innate Immunotherapeutics case. He promised during his presidential campaign to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.


Associated Press news researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.


Follow Kellman on Twitter at www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman


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