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Before Senate panel, federal judge candidate acknowledges ties to Collins

WASHINGTON — John L. Sinatra Jr., nominated to be Buffalo's next federal judge, told a Senate panel Wednesday that he would consider recusing himself from any case involving Rep. Chris Collins, given that the would-be judge's brother is the congressman's business partner.

At a confirmation hearing for several judicial candidates before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chris Coons asked about Sinatra's connections with Collins, which were detailed in a December 2017 story in The Buffalo News.

"Mr. Sinatra, it's been reported Rep. Collins has significant investments in your brother's real estate ventures and that you've got a close friendship and that you've supported him in previous campaigns," said Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. "Given those relationships, would you recuse yourself from any matter that might arise that would involve the congressman were you to be a judge in the relevant district?"

That prompted Sinatra to reply: "Sen. Coons, I certainly would look seriously at that and think hard about it under the recusal statutes as they apply to a situation like that."

Coons' question stemmed from Collins' relationship with Nick Sinatra, a prominent Buffalo developer and the nominee's brother. Collins invested between $3.5 million and $13 million in Nick Sinatra's real estate ventures since 2014, federal records show, and Collins also loaned Nick Sinatra's company at least $1 million.

Both Collins, a Clarence Republican, and Nick Sinatra, a major GOP donor and fundraiser, have faced controversies in the past year.

The Office of Congressional Ethics reported last October that it had "a substantial reason to believe" that Collins violated federal law by touting the stock of an obscure Australian biotech firm based on inside information, while also possibly breaking House ethics rules by persuading National Institutes of Health officials to meet with a staffer from that company. The House Ethics Committee continues to investigate those charges.

And The Buffalo News reported in April that Nick Sinatra owed more than $800,000 in back taxes. Sinatra paid those back taxes, which ended up totaling nearly $1.3 million, later that month.

Those sorts of details never surfaced at Wednesday's hearing, where, in addition to reviewing the Sinatra nomination, the Judiciary Committee hurriedly considered the nominations of a New York judge to join the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and of five downstate lawyers to become district court judges.

The panel will vote on those nominations at a later date, but the Vetting Room, a blog operated by lawyers who follow the confirmation process, said Sinatra would likely be approved.

And all of the nominees won some praise from one of the panel's Democrats, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

"I greatly respect all of your records, your professional qualifications," Blumenthal said.

Sinatra, a civil litigator at Buffalo's Hodgson Russ law firm, delivered a perfunctory opening statement, thanking President Trump for nominating him and Senate Minority Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand — both Democrats — for backing his nomination. Sinatra also introduced a large contingent of family members who traveled to Washington for the hearing, including his brother Nick.

Trump nominated Sinatra for the judicial opening in Buffalo in May, capping an odd four-year saga that started when U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny decided to move to senior status.

With Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, Schumer — the state's senior senator — pushed former U.S. attorney Denise O'Donnell for the vacancy. But the Obama White House balked, concerned about the fact that she was 67 at the time and that she had deep political connections.

In 2016, Schumer pushed — and Obama nominated — Buffalo attorney Kathleen Sweet for the vacancy. While the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the nomination, Senate Republicans stalled in confirming Sweet.

Then Trump, a Republican, won the presidency that fall, upending Democratic judicial nominations such as Sweet's and prompting Collins to start pushing Sinatra for the judgeship.

Wednesday's hearing offered a few clues into what kind of judge Sinatra would be.

Blumenthal asked all the district court nominees their thoughts about Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision barring segregation in public education. Sinatra, like most of the other nominees, did not even speak in reply to that question. The would-be judges who did reply said it would be inappropriate for them to comment on a legal precedent that could come up in their courtrooms.

Sen. John Neely Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, then pressed the nominees if they would resign if Brown v. Board of Education were overturned.

"I don't know how I would respond to that," Sinatra replied. "I hope this country would never come to that."

"That's a good answer," Kennedy replied.

In addition, Kennedy asked the nominees if retribution is a legitimate purpose of the penal system.

That prompted Sinatra to say: "Yes, senator, retribution is one of the stated purposes in sentencing."

And much to surprise of the crowd in the hearing room, Kennedy also asked the nominees if adult incest is protected by the Bill of Rights.

"Sen. Kennedy, I am aware of no Supreme Court case law on that issue," Sinatra replied.

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