Amid ethics probe, Collins maintains his business interests - The Buffalo News

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Amid ethics probe, Collins maintains his business interests

WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins built a political career on his reputation as a successful businessman – and he never stopped being a businessman.

Proof can be found in his most recent personal financial disclosure statement and those of the other 434 members of the House. Those documents and follow-up reporting show:

  •  Collins, a Republican from Clarence, is the only House member who sits on a board of a company whose stock is publicly traded. That company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, is an Australian biotech firm that Collins touted to his colleagues, prompting a House ethics investigation.
  •  Although Collins no longer runs the companies that made him rich, he remains the chairman of two.
  •  Collins also belongs to 11 small real estate partnerships. Most House members aren't partners in any.

Most of those business ties never produced any controversy, but Collins' investment in Innate landed him in the political scrape of his life: a House Ethics Committee investigation that's expected to culminate in a report this week.

But that report probably won't answer a question raised by Collins' business ties:

How much time does Collins spend on his businesses, and how much working for the people?

Asked that question, Collins's political adviser, Christopher M. Grant, said Collins spends about 100 hours working as a congressman for every hour he spends on his business interests. But Grant acknowledged that Collins remains an entrepreneur at heart and an active investor.

"From the beginning, his entire political brand is that of a successful businessman," Grant said.

Nevertheless, congressional ethics experts remain perplexed that Collins remains an unpaid member of Innate's board when no other member of the House does such a thing, when it resulted in an ethics investigation, and when the struggling company cost him at least $5 million when its stock collapsed this summer.

"Why take on an uncompensated role that can only cause you trouble?" asked Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Collins an outlier

The News' review of 435 Personal Financial Disclosure statements filed in May found only one House member besides Collins serving on the board of a company that sells its stock to the public.

The other member is Rep. Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican. And he doesn't serve on a board anymore. First elected to Congress last November, Rooney resigned from the boards of Laredo Petroleum and Helmerich & Payne this year.

"I resign from all the boards, I don't get any information, and I'm going about my business being a congressman, which is plenty of work for me," Rooney told the Naples Daily News in July.

Similarly, former Rep. Amo Houghton, a Corning Republican and former head of Corning Inc., left the boards of Corning and several other companies when he first ran for Congress in 1986.

"I don't want to sound sanctimonious, but I felt that it was best to come in and have an absolute, total clean slate," Houghton said.

That's the right attitude, said Craig Holman, public affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

"Sitting on a company board even without compensation raises legitimate questions whether the lawmaker is privy to insider information for stock trading purposes," Holman said. "It also raises concerns that the lawmaker may be taking official actions designed to benefit that company."

Grant stressed, however, that Collins asked the House Ethics Committee to review his involvement with Innate, plus all his other business ties, when he was first elected to Congress in 2012. Grant said that at the time, the ethics panel gave Collins the go-ahead to continue serving on Innate's board.

"There's only one voice that matters, and that's the House Ethics Committee, not a bunch of naysayers and pol prognosticators who masquerade as nonpartisan," Grant said. "And the Ethics Committee worked with Chris and approved this."

The ethics review

Now, though, the Ethics Committee is reviewing concerns that critics raised about Collins' ties to Innate.

Collins bought 4 million Innate shares at a discount in private stock sales in 2016. Collins' critics wonder if he made that purchase based on inside information.

Complaints against Collins – filed by constituents, Holman and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Fairport Democrat – also question whether he broke a House rule barring lawmakers from using their office for personal gain.

Collins denies any wrongdoing, and the collapse of Innate's stock would appear to provide a defense against those allegations.

Innate announced in June that its only product – an experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis – failed in clinical trials. The value of Innate's stock immediately plummeted to almost nothing, meaning Collins lost most of the money he invested in the company.

If those trials had succeeded, though, Innate could have begun testing the drug in the United States. That fact points to another charge against Collins.

He increased his investment in Innate while working on the 21st Century Cures Act, a new law that eases the clinical trials process for biotech companies like Innate. That's why the ethics complaints filed by Slaughter and others question whether he was legislating to help the company.

But Grant, Collins' adviser, said Collins contributed to that bill because he could make it better.

"Because Chris understood clinical trials in a way that almost no other member did, he had a unique perspective on it," Grant said. "And that's a plus, a positive for people."

Amid the ethics investigation and after Innate's stock collapsed, Collins won another term on Innate's board.

"When the company had a rough go, he felt an obligation to see it through its next phase," Grant said.

An active investor

Most House members have no business ties. Collins lists relationships with 18 companies. That's the sixth-most among the House's 435 members.

To hear Grant tell it, Collins' ongoing business involvement is a good thing.

"There are so strikingly few non-career politicians," Grant said. "There are very few successful business people who go to Congress, and Chris is one of those. That's been a perspective that's been out there for quite some time, and frankly, it's shaped almost all of Chris' successful political messages: the fact that he was a successful outside business guy who's going to come in and apply private sector principles."

Collins remains chairman of ZeptoMetrix, a Buffalo biotech firm, and Audubon Machinery, a North Tonawanda maker of oxygen generators.

Chairmen rarely run companies. Instead of managing companies on a-day-to-day basis, they run occasional board meetings and sometimes serve as advisers to the company president or CEO.

Grant said Collins stopped managing his businesses when he first ran for Erie County executive in 2007.

But he also remains on the boards of several other private companies and the Greater Niagara Frontier Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

That activity is relatively rare, too. The News review found that 215 House members – nearly half – don't hold any positions with companies or charities. Some 110 held a post with a nonprofit, while 70 were partners in a private business.

Neither Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, nor Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, listed any outside positions.

“Early on, Brian made the conscious decision to maintain a singular focus on serving Buffalo and Western New York as a member of the House; he thinks that the people in the communities he represents need and deserve full-time service," said Theresa Kennedy, Higgins' spokeswoman.

Higgins – a career politician – and Collins differ, too, in terms of wealth. Higgins reported a net worth of no more than $75,000, not including the value of his home. Collins' financial disclosure statement showed him to be  worth at least $43,5 million before the collapse of Innate's stock.

And if Collins has anything to say about it, he will get wealthier still.

In August, he invested in West Seneca Apartment Group LLC. State records show that to be a partnership led by developer Nick Sinatra. Federal records show that Sinatra has contributed $9,611 to Collins' campaigns since 2012.

Asked about that investment, Grant said: "Chris has been a successful guy, and as part of that success, he's going to continue to invest his money."

Still an active investor

Rep. Chris Collins's business ties

Chairman and director of:

ZeptoMetrix Corp.

Audubon Machinery Corp.

Director of:

Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd.

Easom Automation Systems Corp.

Volland Electric Equipment Corp.

ICU Diagnostics Inc.

Partner in:

ZeptoMetrix Realty

LLC Cobblestone Realty

LLC Bloch Realty

LLC Wurlitzer Capitol Group

LLC Nagel Drive Associates

LLC Easom North Realty Group

LLC Patio Village Apartments

LLC Woodlands Realty Group

LLC Fox Valley Villages

LLC Linda Lane Apartment

Grup LLC SSIL II

Woodbridge Apartments LLC

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