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Editorial: Collins' support for brother of business partner creates the appearance of a conflict

There seems little doubt that John L. Sinatra Jr. has the right résumé for a federal judgeship. Local lawyers agree, regardless of political party.

Dennis Vacco, a Republican and former state attorney general, called him a “skilled practitioner” with “a great judicial temperament.” Terrence M. Connors, a prominent Democratic attorney, said Sinatra is “hard-working, solid and trustworthy.”

On paper, and likely on the bench, he would be a worthy judge. The problem isn’t with him. It’s with his brother’s relationship to his congressional sponsor, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. That’s a real problem, first for Collins and indirectly for Sinatra.

Sinatra’s brother is Nick Sinatra, a successful Buffalo developer who has close business ties to Collins, himself a successful businessman turned politician. Collins has invested between $3.5 million and $13 million in Nick Sinatra’s real estate projects just since 2014. In addition, Collins loaned Sinatra’s company between $1 million and $5 million two years ago. They have had a mutually beneficial business relationship, one that earned Collins between $65,000 and $350,000 last year. If that were all there was to it, no one would worry.

But Collins is not just a businessman. He’s a public official holding an influential office in the national government. As such, he has an obligation to avoid even the appearance of self-dealing. Failure to do so hurts his standing and risks undermining those he seeks to benefit, including John Sinatra.

This is a fundamental issue. Like President Trump, also a businessman turned politician, Collins pushes his interests without regard to the standards built up over decades to protect the public from officials who would misuse their offices and to protect themselves from the appearance of doing the same.

These are important safeguards. They aren’t whimsies – mere flights of fancy created out of whole cloth to keep bureaucrats busy. When respected, these rules help to maintain confidence in government; when violated they set off sirens.

This is not the first time Collins has violated those safeguards. He seems still to disagree that there was a problem sponsoring legislation that stood to benefit an Australian pharmaceutical company in which he was the leading stockholder. Defenders have pointed out, correctly, that the legislation would also have benefited other companies. It’s true and also beside the point: The move was drenched in at least the appearance of self-dealing.

Now the question applies to his support for what appears to be an otherwise well-qualified judicial candidate. Does he owe a favor to Nick Sinatra? Does he want something back from Sinatra? Is it a message to others that if you help me, I’ll help you?
None of these is necessarily true, it’s important to note, but by ignoring the rules of conduct for public officials, Collins has opened himself to questions such as these. That hurts him with his constituents, it hurts his credibility among peers in Congress and it hurts John Sinatra by implication.

New York’s senators, both Democrats, have the power to block any nominee for the seat. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand declined to comment on the matter.

There is a broader lesson here, as well. It goes to the theory of government as a business. Some of the attraction of Collins and Trump to voters was their business success. Many voters believe government would do better if it was run like a business. There are obvious advantages to that, principally in controlling spending. But the disadvantages are significant, too.

For one, government isn’t a business. It has obligations to the poor, the sick and the elderly that businesses don’t have. In federal government, in particular, deficit spending is sometimes acceptable, such as it was during the Great Recession, when Washington’s response saved millions of jobs and prevented millions of foreclosures.

For another, different rules apply. While some people criticize “career politicians,” the fact is that the good ones know the ropes and how to get things done. They understand their influence comes with a heightened standard of ethics.

Businessmen such as Collins face a steep learning curve that they will never surmount if they don’t even understand that the curve exists.

Collins will do much better to learn these concepts and take them to heart. As to John Sinatra, he appears to be a qualified candidate for the vacant federal judgeship in Buffalo. It’s a shame his ambitions are colored by Collins’ misconceptions.

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