Forget whether Rep. Chris Collins did anything legally or institutionally wrong regarding his relationship with Innate Immunotherapeutics. That’s not the point – at least, not yet – and, as his spokesman said, there can be perfectly legal explanations for his role in helping moneyed Western New Yorkers to capitalize on the company’s growth.
Certainly, there are important questions that need to be answered, but we already know this much: Collins used his congressional office to push for legislation that down the road could put money in his pocket. He is splashing in the swamp that his candidate, Donald J. Trump, promised to drain.
Collins is a board member of Innate Immunotherapeutics, and its largest stockholder. The 21st Century Cures Act, which he pushed, stands to greatly benefit that company if it wants to bring one of its products to America.
Thus, you don’t even have to get to questions regarding the Clarence Republican’s recent purchase of additional company stock and its subsequent explosion in value. You don’t have to look behind his boast about creating millionaires in Buffalo. You don’t even have to examine the nature of his influence on Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who also bought the stock at a reduced price not available to the public and who is President Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.
Any of those questions could have acceptable explanations. Regardless, it is plain that Collins conducted himself in a way that created at least the appearance, if not the fact, of a classic conflict of interest.
Innate Immunotherapeutics, headquartered in Australia, is a drug manufacturer working on an experimental treatment for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. Collins bought stock in the company before he was elected to public office and has continued to buy. With 17.12 percent of its shares, he is the company’s top stockholder. His children rank among the top five investors and his chief of staff is its 19th largest shareholder.
So far, so good. It gets stickier, though, with Collins’ actions as a congressman. He played a role in passage last year of the 21st Century Cures Act, and was responsible for the part of the bill that would speed the clinical trials needed for approval in this country. It would apply to many drugs, including those of Innate. With that, he jumped into the swamp.
Avoiding such conflicts is Government 101 and it’s disturbing that Collins either didn’t understand that or didn’t care about it. But it’s indisputable. Any pharmaceutical company that wants to succeed needs the American marketplace, and the doorway to that gold mine is found at the Food and Drug Administration. With Collins pushing, the door opened wider for his company.
The law was passed to broad acclaim. Supporters included hospitals, universities, the American Cancer Society Action Network, the National Institutes of Health and a bipartisan array of politicians, including former Vice President Joe Biden. There is every reason to believe it was valuable legislation.
But it corrupts the process when its direct advocates include elected officials whose bank accounts stand to benefit. Collins should either have stayed out of the process or, better still, have applied his passion and expertise after having sold those stocks. Then he’s an expert acting on behalf of the country and not, as it appears, himself.
It might not have been an ideal solution from Collins’ perspective, but the fact is that in some lines of work, you agree to forfeit opportunities that might otherwise appear. It’s the price of entry for high elective office. Collins jumped the turnstile.
There will be more questions about this deal, with government leaders requesting investigations both of Collins and Price. Judging by his spokesman’s comments, Collins is angry about such questions and may not even understand why they are normal and important. Whether he understands or not, he has only himself to blame.