WASHINGTON — Rep. Chris Collins — who is facing an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation into his investment in an obscure Australian biotech firm — walked off the House floor late Wednesday afternoon, cellphone in hand, apparently talking about yet another stock trade involving that same company.
Reporters who overheard him said it appeared he was discussing Innate Immunotherapeutics, the biotech firm in which he's the largest shareholder.
Innate's stock price has collapsed in recent weeks in the wake of its announcement that its highly touted treatment for multiple sclerosis proved to be ineffective in clinical trials, and Collins appeared to be involved in a conversation about someone possibly taking part in that stock sell-off.
"Come hell or high water you will have $200,000," Collins was heard to say, according to one witness who said it appeared the Clarence Republican was discussing someone selling 5 million Innate shares at about 4 cents a share, its trading level in over-the-counter trading in this country late Wednesday.
That witness said it appeared that Collins and whomever he was speaking with were having trouble finding an American broker willing to handle a trade of Innate stock, which was worth 57 cents a share before its bad-news announcement on June 27.
“If we can find a broker in Australia,” Collins was heard to say.
Matt Laslo, a veteran Capitol Hill reporter who has written stories for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast and other publications, also overheard Collins' phone conversation.
"Rep. Chris Collins is on the phone off the House floor — surrounded by reporters — discussing stock trades," Laslo said in a tweet.
Rep. Chris Collins is on the phone off the House floor - surrounded by reporters - discussing stock trades
— Matt Laslo (@MattLaslo) July 19, 2017
Moments later, Laslo tweeted an observation from Tom LoBianco, a politics reporter at CNN who also overheard Collins discussing a stock trade.
"Doing the people's business," LoBianco quipped.
— Matt Laslo (@MattLaslo) July 19, 2017
Laslo later said in a tweet that it was "INSANE" for Collins to be talking stocks in the halls of the Capitol.
Provided with quotes of the conversation as well as Laslo's early tweets, neither Sarah Minkel, Collins' congressional press secretary, nor Christopher M. Grant, his campaign adviser, disputed what happened.
Asked what Collins was trying to do — why he was talking stock trades just off the House floor, and what they would say to those who think such a conversation inappropriate — neither Minkel nor Grant provided answers.
A source close to Collins said that Collins was talking to his son, Cameron Collins, about unloading Innate shares. Cameron Collins and his sister, Caitlin Collins, had also heavily invested in Innate, which the congressman promoted both to Buffalo business leaders and congressional colleagues.
This is not the first time that reporters have heard Collins talking about Innate just off the House floor. In early January — when Innate's stock was booming — he was heard talking into his cellphone about "how many millionaires I've made in Buffalo the past few months."
But he also made a lot of trouble for himself.
For one thing, he recommended Innate to then-Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican whom President Trump nominated to be health and human services secretary. Price's investment in Innate then became a topic of much criticism at Price's confirmation hearing.
Price and Collins came under attack from Democrats and congressional ethics watchdogs because both were involved in drawing up the 21st Century Cures Act. Passed last year, that bill includes a provision Collins authored that speeds up clinical trials of new drugs made by companies such as Innate.
The Buffalo News reported in May that investigators from the Office of Congressional Ethics traveled to Buffalo to probe Collins' Innate investment.
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Fairport Democrat, has long said Collins' actions could be a violation of a bill she authored called the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act.
Asked about Collins' comments off the House floor on Wednesday, Slaughter said: "It's egregious and insulting that he would do this in the halls of Congress where the STOCK Act was written to keep people from using insider information for their own financial gain. Last we heard, Innate proclaimed that their drug was no better than a placebo. His attempt to sell more stock in this company is staggering."
She was by no means the only Democrat piling on Collins about what happened Wednesday.
Erin Cole of Lockport, an Army veteran and longtime state and federal official who announced Tuesday she would challenge Collins for re-election in New York's 27th congressional district next year, tweeted: "This is a huge part of why I feel the need to run. The NY-27th deserves a Rep concerned with voters, not shareholders."
Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, weighed in.
"This incident perfectly captures Representative Collins’ priorities,” Lukaske said. “Western New York families are struggling to make ends meet, and instead of trying to help them, Representative Collins is focused on growing his stock portfolio. It seems Collins is desperate to take his reelection chances even lower than Innate’s stock price.”
In response, Grant, Collins' political adviser, once again tried to tie Collins' Democratic critics to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
"Nancy Pelosi and Governor Cuomo can check their self-dealing hypocrisy at the door," Grant said. "From standing up for firefighters in Honeoye Falls, to protecting the Second Amendment in Elma, to fighting for families along Lake Ontario, Chris Collins' only priority is standing up for the residents of NY-27."
One source close to the congressman said he lost the $5 million he invested in Innate when the stock dropped.
A Washington Post reporter, Mike DeBonis, who overheard and reported Collins' earlier Capitol hallway comment about making millionaires in Buffalo — couldn't help but flex his wit in response to the new situation.
Responding to Laslo's thread of tweets about Collins' latest stock conversation, DeBonis tweeted: "Someone get this guy in a nice low-cost index fund already."