Rep. Chris Collins flip-flops on his guilt

U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, speaks to reporters as he leaves the courthouse following a pretrial hearing in his insider-trading case on September 12.
U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, speaks to reporters as he leaves the courthouse following a pretrial hearing in his insider-trading case on September 12.
Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock
U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, speaks to reporters as he leaves the courthouse following a pretrial hearing in his insider-trading case on September 12.

Rep. Chris Collins flip-flops on his guilt

The congressman, who is resigning and pleading guilty, had repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.
September 30, 2019

Republican Rep. Chris Collins is pleading guilty to insider trading and is resigning his seat in Congress, effective tomorrow

The Western New York congressman plans to reverse the not guilty plea that he entered in federal court earlier this year at a hearing scheduled for tomorrow, according to media reports.Collins was arrested in August 2018 after prosecutors accused him of sharing non-public information about an Australian biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics, on whose board he sat. The indictment stated that when a drug the company was developing failed a crucial drug test, Collins called his son Cameron Collins to advise him and Cameron Collins' prospective father-in-law Stephen Zarsk to dump stock in the company before it dropped. Both Cameron Collins and Zarsky also pled not guilty to the charges, but are expected to reverse themselves this week, according to The Washington Post. 

His formal plea was not the only time Collins proclaimed his innocence. Although Collins has kept a low profile and avoided the press since his indictment in August 2018, he has repeatedly asserted that he did not do anything wrong and was looking forward to refuting the allegations in court. 

Here’s a timeline of Collins’ evolving statements on the indictment and his political future.

Aug. 2018

Collins promised to fight charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and false statements after federal prosecutors indicted him on Aug. 8. "The charges that have been levied against me are meritless," Collins said at the time. "And I will mount a vigorous defense in court to clear my name. I look forward to being fully vindicated and exonerated." However, he announced that he would suspend his reelection bid.

Sept. 2018

Getting Collins off the ballot in time for the 2018 election would have been difficult because of the limited time left, which factored into Collins’ decision to reverse himself and run for reelection after all. There has been some speculation that Collins also hoped that he would have more leverage to reach a plea deal with prosecutors if he won reelection and stayed in office. 

Nov. 2018

After narrowly winning reelection, Collins played the victim in an interview with Buffalo television station WIVB. “There are people that assume you are guilty until proven innocent, which is not America. I know the reality of that. And so, there is no doubt that’s where I lost votes … It is what it is and I know I’m innocent and I’m confident I will be exonerated, and stick it on the shelf. Will I think about it? Of course I will. It’s not going to impact my day-to-day work, and I don’t even meet with my attorneys 10 minutes a week, let alone two hours.”

Feb. 2019

Attorneys for Collins adopted a new tactic in court by challenging the right of prosecutors to file charges in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. The crux of the issue is whether the district has jurisdiction because Innate Immunotherapeutics is listed on the Nasdaq in New York City – even though Collins did not commit his alleged crimes in the area. "The indictment does not allege a single act in this district," the Collins lawyers said in the new court papers. "No passing of information in this District, no wires into or out of this district, no trade orders placed or executed in this District, and no false statements made in this District. Not one."

July 2019

In a rare interview with reporters, Collins said it was “laughable” that he would run for reelection to get leverage in plea negotiations with prosecutors. "I am innocent of the charges," Collins said. "Why would I ever even enter a plea deal? I’m innocent." He also said that prosecutors only had “circumstantial” evidence against him so he was “quite comfortable” that he would be found “not guilty.”

Sept. 2019

After prosecutors revised and resubmitted their indictments, Collins reiterated his claims of innocence. "I look forward to being exonerated in due course." Though a trial was scheduled for 2020, Collins also said that he was "highly confident that if I run (for reelection), I'd win the primary. Highly confident that if I won the primary, I'd be reelected in a general."

One reason why Collins has held on to his seat for so long was the implicit support of President Donald Trump, who helped downplay his indictment during the 2018 election. Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse his presidential campaign in 2016, and Trump rewarded that loyalty in a Sept. 2018 tweet where he blamed Collins’ political problems on then Attorney General Jeff Sessions and incorrectly claimed the investigation into Collins began during the Obama administration.

Collins’ guilty plea did not automatically mean that he had to resign. Legally, he could have remained in office and run for reelection. Neither the U.S. Constitution nor federal law forbid a felon from running for office – even while they are in prison – though the House of Representatives could vote to oust him from the chamber. However, Collins only narrowly won reelection last year against Democratic challenger Nate McMurray in the heavily Republican district and he likely would have faced pressure from Republican colleagues to resign in favor of a stronger candidate. (Support from Trump and Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon helped Collins beat off the challenge from McMurray in 2018.)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will now have to call a special election to replace Collins’ through the end of his term. There will then be another election for the subsequent full term on Election Day in 2020. A spokeswoman for Collins could not be reached by publication time. Both GOP state Sens. Robert Ortt and Chris Jacobs have announced plans to run for Collins’s seat in the 27th district, which stretches from the Buffalo suburbs to near Rochester. Presumably they, and McMurray, who also is running in that race, will now throw their hat in the ring for the special election. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.