Collins camp takes heart in charge investigators ignored - The Buffalo News

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Collins camp takes heart in charge investigators ignored

WASHINGTON — To hear Rep. Chris Collins' top political aide tell it, the most important part of an ethics report on his boss was the part that wasn't included.

Nowhere in the 29-page Office of Congressional Ethics report is there any claim or any evidence that Collins wrote legislation on behalf of Innate Immunotherapeutics, the Australian biotech firm in which he is the largest investor.

That was by far the most explosive charge leveled by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Fairport Democrat, and others about the Republican lawmaker from Clarence.

"And it's so preposterous that they don't even deal with it in the report," said Christopher M. Grant, Collins' former chief of staff and current political adviser.

The ethics office did accuse Collins of a federal crime: "tipping" investors off to inside information that could persuade them to invest more money in Innate. And the ethics office also said there's substantial evidence that Collins broke House rules by seeking help for Innate from officials of the National Institutes of Health.

But with the most egregious charge against Collins nowhere to be found in the report, Grant insisted that the case against Collins — now before the House Ethics Committee — will be "neither a legal nor a political problem" for the three-term lawmaker.

The Ethics Committee will decide that. The bipartisan panel said Thursday that it was continuing its investigation of Collins based on the unanimous recommendation of the Office of Congressional Ethics, a nonpartisan investigative panel that reviews cases for the Ethics Committee.

It's unclear how long that review will take, or whether the Ethics Committee will suggest any punishment for Collins.

But Grant said it's hugely important that the Office of Congressional Ethics appeared to dismiss outright the charge that Collins drew up a provision in the 21st Century Cures Act to benefit Innate. That provision speeds clinical trials of new drugs produced by biotech companies such as Innate.

Though that specific charge was not included in her official complaint against Collins, Slaughter, a Fairport Democrat, raised it more than once in the media. The author of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, Slaughter argued that Collins engaged in a particularly brazen form of insider stock trading when he boosted his investment in Innate in 2016.

"Beyond the original STOCK Act that said members and staff couldn't trade on nonpublic information, Congressman Collins went further and wrote an amendment to the 21st Century Cures Act that benefited him personally," Slaughter said this August.

Tellingly, the words "21st Century Cures Act" don't appear in the Office of Congressional Ethics Report on Collins. And according to the transcript of Collins' interview with investigators, they never even asked him about it.

Instead, they peppered Collins with questions about what eventually became the two main charges they would make against Collins.

Grant said, though, that he is not particularly concerned about those charges. He believes Collins' lawyer, E. Mark Braden, has strong defenses against both.

The first charge — a form of insider trading — is by far the more serious. If true, Collins could be charged with a federal crime.

Investigators from the ethics office said that in emails in late 2015 and early 2016, Collins provided Innate investors with nonpublic information about the company's clinical trials. And in a June 2016 email, investigators say, Collins disclosed an upcoming private stock offering before Innate announced it.

Braden, however, cites an affadavit from Innate CEO Simon Wilkinson — who refused to cooperate with the ethics investigation — indicating that all of the information Collins discussed in those emails was already widely known.

And in a June 2016 email, investigators say Collins disclosed an upcoming private stock offering before Innate announced it. Braden counters by saying Collins was merely gauging interest in a possible upcoming stock sale.

"OCE combs through the emails and nit-picks sentences or words in a tortured attempt to conclude that non-public information was contained therein," Braden wrote in his response to the Office of Congressional Ethics report. "A rational review, however,demonstrates that OCE's conclusions are without basis."

Braden similarly dismisses the other ethics charge against Collins.

An NIH employee told investigators that Collins asked the agency for help on Innate's clinical trials, and the ethics report cites it as a possible violation of a House rule barring lawmakers from taking official actions that benefit a company in which they are heavily invested.

But to hear Braden tell it, Collins was just doing his job, as was the NIH, in discussing clinical trials for Innate's experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis.

"OCE's suggestion that this highly common type of educational and scientific collaboration is somehow untoward fails to recognize the very nature of the mission of institutions like NIH and entities like Innate," Braden wrote in his response to the Ethics Committee.

Slaughter had a very different take on things, arguing that Collins had violated the STOCK Act's provision making clear that insider trading laws apply to members of Congress.

"Many people, including many members of Congress from his own party, were concerned by his zealous pursuit of profits when he should have been representing his constituents," she said.

But one prominent member of Collins' own party — Vice President Pence — apparently isn't too concerned about the ethics case against the Clarence congressman.

Pence's spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment, but Grant said Pence will travel to Buffalo as scheduled next Tuesday for a fundraiser for Collins.

 

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