WASHINGTON – Rep. Louise M. Slaughter thinks Rep. Chris Collins could be guilty of a crime: insider stock trading.
Meantime, Collins thinks Slaughter – one of the most powerful women in the House – is "a despicable human being."
Such are the tensions these days between these two lawmakers from neighboring Western New York districts. And it's all due to the fact that Slaughter, more than anyone in Congress, has taken offense at and action against the stock deals that have produced the greatest controversy of Collins' five-year congressional career.
Slaughter, D-Fairport, has been lashing out against Collins' investment in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm, ever since it exploded into the news in January. She complained more than once to regulatory agencies and prosecutors. She even proposed legislation that would bar lawmakers from doing what Collins, R-Clarence, did – investing in a foreign company's first stock offering and buying stock in a discounted private stock sale.
In an interview, Slaughter said it's nothing personal.
"I would have done it to anybody," Slaughter said.
More specifically, Slaughter said she'd have plenty to say about any lawmaker who, in her view, appeared to violate the spirit or the letter of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which Slaughter pushed into law after six years of effort in 2012.
Called the STOCK Act for short, the bill aims to bar federal lawmakers and staffers from using the inside knowledge they glean on Capitol Hill to get an unfair advantage in the stock market.
That law also requires lawmakers to report their stock transactions publicly within 45 days. So the law that Slaughter got passed five years ago is the reason the news broke in January that Collins had bought stock in Innate in a discount private stock sale last year, and that then-Rep. Tom Price, President Trump's nominee to be health secretary, had done the same.
Hearing of those investments, Slaughter erupted. She fired off a letter, asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate.
What troubled Slaughter the most, then and now, was that at the same time Collins and Price were buying Innate stock, they were working on the 21st Century Cures Act, a federal law that includes a Collins provision speeding the clinical drug trial process.
It's a provision that could conceivably benefit Innate, and to Slaughter, Collins obviously violated the STOCK Act when he wrote that legislative language.
"You can see there was a blatant conflict of interest," she said in an interview last week. "He was the largest stockholder in the company, and he wrote that amendment to benefit himself. I think almost anyone would determine that is illegal. I'm sorry he didn't."
Collins did not make himself available for an interview for this story last Friday, but he has repeatedly said he wrote that amendment to make it easier for innovative new drugs to come to the market and benefit patients, not to benefit himself.
"There was nothing done that was insider trading or unethical," Collins told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in January.
"Everything I have done in the private sector has been through an ethics review point by point by point, and I have been given a clean bill of health by Ethics from the day I walked in the door, including my involvement with Innate Immunotherapeutics and my position on the board," Collins told USA Today a month later. And last week, Collins' investment in Innate dwindled to nearly nothing after the company announced that its highly touted multiple sclerosis drug had failed in clinical trials in Australia and New Zealand. That collapse – which sources close to Collins said cost him $5 million out of pocket – is further proof he did nothing wrong, Collins told The Buffalo News last Tuesday.
"Sophisticated investors know there's a risk, and as you now know that there was never any inside information that would indicate otherwise," Collins said.
But Slaughter isn't letting go of the crusade she started earlier this year. She noted that an unusual number of Innate shares were traded in the days leading up to its announcement that its drug had failed, which could be another sign of insider trading. Collins, however, held onto his shares as they sank, as did his two children and his chief of staff.
Slaughter complained about Collins' investment in Innate months ago not only to the SEC, but also to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which could prosecute any violation of federal law. In addition, she complained to the Office of Congressional Ethics – which is now probing Collins' involvement in Innate – and the House Ethics Committee.
And in April, Slaughter introduced legislation to amend the STOCK Act to bar lawmakers from doing two things Collins had done with Innate: investing in an initial public offering overseas and buying discounted stock sold in a private placement.
"The legislation I’m introducing will make it clear as day that federal officials who take part in exclusive stock deals not available to the general public are breaking both the spirit and the letter of the law,” she said at the time.
Clearly, Collins has taken that proposal personally.
"She just makes this stuff up" about how his stock transactions are illegal, Collins said on WHAM radio last week. "She's a despicable human being ... she needs to retire."
Collins' political adviser, Chris Grant, said that what Collins said was "a pretty tempered reaction." After all, Grant said, Slaughter's new legislation is so narrowly crafted that it seems directed at only one member of Congress: Chris Collins.
"It's pretty clear that Louise Slaughter has been on some sort of personal vendetta for so long," Grant said. "In press release after press release, she's basically called him a criminal."
And there's no sign she's going to stop.
Now 87 – 20 years older than Collins – Slaughter remains the same aggressive liberal legislator she was during the 10 years she represented Buffalo between 2003 and 2012. The top Democrat on the Rules Committee – which sets the terms for debate on legislation – she's also pushing multiple legislative proposals, including a measure that would regulate "political intelligence operatives" and another imposing new ethics rules on the Supreme Court.
She and Collins have continued to work together on a handful of issues, such as the aviation safety measures stemming from the Flight 3407 crash, but the tension between the two seemed palpable at a press conference the Flight 3407 families held last week. What's more, they're also clashing more often on other issues.
Last week, for example, Collins issued a press release tweaking Slaughter for not joining him on his effort to stop Plan 2014, the International Joint Commission's plan for regulating Lake Ontario, which Collins and local residents blame for the flooding even though scientists blame the heavy spring rains.
Slaughter said it's as if Collins is blaming her for the flooding, adding: "I can't stop the rain."
Of course, winning passage of a congressional ethics bill seemingly aimed at a Republican in a Republican Congress won't be much easier than controlling the weather.
Then again, Slaughter recalled the break she got in 2012 that pushed the STOCK Act into law.
CBS' "60 Minutes" did a report on the stock investments of members of Congress, and the next day, lawmakers started coming up to her, telling her they were now supporting the STOCK Act.
Asked how she could get her new ethics bill passed by a Republican Congress, Slaughter said: "Only if '60 Minutes' takes it up – and we've talked to them about it."