WASHINGTON – Two days after news broke that congressional investigators are looking into Rep. Chris Collins' biotech stock purchases, the Clarence Republican sat down with pharmaceutical lobbyists Thursday over lunch at Fiola, a swanky Italian restaurant a half-mile from the Capitol.
The cost of admission: a campaign contribution of anywhere from $500 to $2,500.
It's all part of a fundraising push that's unusual for Collins.
Amid controversy over his investments in an obscure Australian biotech firm and a threat of serious competition for re-election in 2018, Collins has scheduled nine D.C. fundraisers between mid-May and the end of June. That comes after an early-year fundraising push that saw him raise more than twice as much as he took in during the same quarter two years ago.
Collins' fundraising push highlighted the first-quarter campaign finance reports filed by local members of Congress, which showed Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, also increasing his fundraising. Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, continued, as usual, to raise less money than members in neighboring districts.
Collins pulled in $281,125 in the first quarter, and that's just the start.
A list of Collins fundraisers, sent to The Buffalo News by a source who had received the list, shows nine events at fancy D.C. restaurants and at the Republicans' Capitol Hill Club between last Tuesday and the end of June. Collins' office did not dispute the authenticity of the list of fundraisers.
Except for the first event at the Capital Grille last Tuesday, which sought contributions starting at $1,000, the rest of the Collins fundraisers on the list ask for at least $500 per attendee.
Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics – which keeps track of political fundraisers on its Politcal Party Time website (politicalpartytime.org) – said that while her organization was unaware of the Collins fundraisers, they didn't seem all that unusual.
"Obviously members who are anticipating tough races will work harder at this stage," Novak said. "And given that he's being investigated, he should be expecting a strong challenge."
But Collins had never been a big Washington fundraiser before this year. And of the nine Collins fundraisers, Thursday's "PhRMA Industry Lunch" stood out. PhRMA stands for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the nation's drug manufacturers.
Connections to those companies could pay off for Collins because he is the majority shareholder in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm that is trying to develop a treatment for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.
Innate's managing director and CEO, Simon Wilkinson, told The Buffalo News earlier this year that his company would likely be sold to a major pharmaceutical firm at a big profit for Innate stockholders if its multiple sclerosis treatment performs well in clinical trials.
But Collins' investment in Innate is controversial. He bought additional stock in Innate at a discount price in a private stock placement last year, and persuaded then-Rep. Tom Price, now President Trump's health secretary, to do the same.
Several members of the Buffalo area's business elite invested in Innate, too, according to research done by the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo think tank. And investigators from the Office of Congressional Ethics were in Buffalo interviewing some of those investors last week.
Investigators are looking into complaints that Collins got a discount on Innate stock at a time when he was working on a bill that would speed drug trials for companies like Innate.
Hearing that Collins had a fundraiser with pharmaceutical industry lobbyists, Patricia Dieck – one of at least five individuals to file ethics complaints against the congressman – was aghast.
"It definitely raises questions whether he is in D.C. to represent constituents' interests or his self-interests in the medical field," said Dieck, 55, of Batavia.
Dieck added: "I'm definitely upset that he's doing all these fundraisers when he can't find the time to have a town hall with the people in his own district."
Collins defended his decision not to hold town hall meetings with constituents in an appearance on CNN in March.
“I have never seen the value of the time commitment for a town hall when in fact I can spend my time with a group of dairy farmers, with a group of health care professionals, for a half hour or an hour and have a real give and take,” Collins said.
The Buffalo News asked Collins' staff about the town hall issue in an email that also included questions about why Collins was increasing his fundraising pace and whether his PhRMA fundraiser might raise concerns in the midst of the ethics investigation.
Collins' office did not answer any of the questions. Instead, his campaign adviser, Christopher M. Grant, issued a statement:
"Congressman Collins has always been an aggressive fundraiser to assure his campaign has the resources to reach out to his constituents," Grant said. "That fact that he is raising money in the district and in Washington is a fact of life when serving in Congress, especially in this environment. Also, the Congressman has never hesitated to write his own check to make sure his message is heard."
Grant continued: "People in the 27th Congressional District have been very clear to Congressman Collins in his countless meetings and events. They want jobs, a tax system that promotes growth, a program to fix roads and bridges and an end to job-stifling regulations. They can count on Congressman Collins to take on the extreme left wing agenda of Washington Democrats, as well as those radical liberals here in our community."
Grant also did not address a question about the $500,000 personal loan Collins gave to his campaign when he first ran for his current seat in Congress in 2012 – a loan that Collins repaid in late 2016. Replenishing his campaign war chest after repaying that loan could be another reason for Collins' increased pace of fundraising.
Documents filed with the Federal Elections Commission showed that the $281,125 he raised in the first quarter left him with a campaign war chest of $946,136. Slightly more than half of his first-quarter fundraising came from political action committees, with health care PACs giving the largest amount, $20,500.
The fundraising boost should give Collins a head start if he does face a strong challenge next year in New York's heavily Republican 27th district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has vowed to target Collins for defeat, but it remains unclear whether a tough opponent will emerge.
Reed – who always faces a challenge in the Southern Tier's more competitive 23rd district – actually raised far more in the first quarter than Collins did: $585,283. That total, which compared to $309,663 in the same period two years earlier, replenished Reed's empty campaign coffers after his competitive race last year against Democrat John Plumb. As of March 31, Reed had cash on hand of $512,640.
Like Collins, Reed got a little more than half of his campaign funds from PACs, with the rest coming from individuals. The largest share of Reed's PAC funds – $53,650 – came from the financial industry, which tends to contribute heavily to lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws. Reed is on that committee.
Higgins serves on that committee now, too, but that fact didn't lead to a huge fundraising boom for the Buffalo Democrat. He raised $83,729 for the quarter, with the majority of it coming from individuals.
Higgins, who has never faced a tight race for re-election, had $803,008 on hand as of March 31.
But that didn't stop Higgins from continuing to take part in the fundraising game. The Political Party Time website showed that he had a fundraiser Friday at downtown Washington's legendary Old Ebbitt Grill.
Higgins charged just as much as Collins usually does for admission: a minimum of $500 for individuals and a maximum of $2,500 for PACs.
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