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The Briefing: Was Collins' arrest Slaughter's last act?

WASHINGTON – Rep. Louise M. Slaughter didn't live to see Rep. Chris Collins' perp walk last Wednesday, but she might have set it in motion.

It went little-noticed at the time, but early last June, Slaughter went into a rage over a report in the Hill newspaper. The report said Collins, at a dinner with congressional colleagues, urged them to invest in Innate Immunotherapeutics, the tiny Australian biotech that counted the Republican congressman from Clarence as its largest investor.

"The story today is truly shocking and makes it clear that some members of Congress are embroiled in a major stock trading scandal that violates the public trust and likely the law," Slaughter, a Democrat from Fairport, said at the time.

But Slaughter didn't just rage to the press that day. She also sent letters complaining about Collins to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

Slaughter filed those complaints exactly two weeks before the White House picnic where Collins – according to the SEC and Southern District prosecutors – launched a chain of insider trades on Innate stock with a phone call to his son Cameron.

Collins calls Slaughter 'despicable' for blasting him on stock trades

And it wasn't the first time Slaughter complained about Collins. She wrote to the SEC about Collins and Innate in January 2017 and to both the SEC and the Southern District about the Collins-Innate relationship that April.

Might SEC investigators and the Manhattan prosecutors have trained their eyes on Collins at least in part because Slaughter, probably the most fervent ethics advocate in the House, asked them to?

That's what Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who succeeded Slaughter as the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, seems to think.

"This development is in no small part due to Louise Slaughter’s dogged determination to get the American people the ethical Congress they deserve," McGovern said after Collins' arrest.

Slaughter died in March at the age of 88. But anyone who knew her can well imagine what she would have said upon hearing that Collins, her longtime congressional neighbor and nemesis, had been charged with securities fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and lying to a federal agent.

It probably would have been similar to what she said when the Office of Congressional Ethics reported last fall that it had "substantial reason to believe" that Collins engaged in insider trading in 2016. That's when he tipped off prospective investors in Innate, an Australian biotech, about company information he knew from his service on the company's board.

"He put his obsession to enrich himself before the people he swore to represent," Slaughter said at the time. "It is a disgrace to Congress and to his constituents, who deserve better.”

Slaughter authored the STOCK Act, which bans lawmakers from trading in stocks based on what they learn in Congress. Just to be clear, Collins did not get arrested under the STOCK Act. The kind of insider trading he's accused of has been illegal for decades; it could have gotten him arrested even if he never won election to Congress and even if the STOCK Act never passed

But Slaughter's nonstop heckling of Collins kept his relationship with Innate in the headlines, where regulators and prosecutors could not help but notice it.

Slaughter and Collins were polar opposites – one a proudly progressive coal miner's daughter with a razor wit and a fiery temper, the other a business-first businessman who tended to show more passion for the "Lean Six Sigma" management philosophy than he did for many people.

Not surprisingly, they detested each other.

Never friendly, their relationship took a turn for the worse early last year amid revelations that Collins tipped off other lawmakers to Innate's stock and wrote a provision of 2016 legislation that could speed clinical trials for drug companies like Innate.

"My chief anger here is that a member of Congress would take advantage of his position to write something that would benefit him and his friends," Slaughter said early last year.

Collins did not take comments like that kindly.

"She just makes this stuff up" when she questions whether his stock transactions are legal, Collins told WHAM radio last year.

"She's a despicable human being ... she needs to retire," Collins added.

But Slaughter never quit. Last year she proposed a bill that would have barred lawmakers from doing what Collins did when he invited some of his friends and colleagues – including Tom Price, who would become President Trump's first health secretary – to get freshly issued Innate stock at a discount.

Not surprisingly, then, Slaughter erupted when the Buffalo News reported in late June 2017 that Innate insiders might have dumped their shares before the company announced that its only product, an experimental multiple sclerosis drug, failed in clinical trials.

"This raises very serious questions as to when Congressman Collins knew about the drug’s performance and who is responsible for the suspicious trading before the drug’s failure was publicly known," she said. "This development only raises more questions, and we need to get the answers. It cries out for an investigation."

That's clearly what the SEC and the Southern District prosecutors thought.

And what they did made McGovern, Slaughter's colleague, recall her years as the House's ethics champion.

"She was fearless in taking on the powerful when they abused the public trust, regardless of their political affiliation," he said. "We need more like her in Congress.”

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