Over a month after Chris Collins was indicted on charges of insider trading and 37 days since he announced he would not run for re-election, the Clarence Republican says he will remain on the ballot, "actively campaign" for his 27th Congressional District seat and serve if re-elected, Bob McCarthy and Jerry Zremski reported.
Readers had questions about if and how someone under indictment could still run for office. Buffalo News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski answered your questions.
From Katie Bartolomei: How is this legal?
Zremski: There is no law barring a member of Congress who has been indicted from running for re-election. But if Collins wins re-election, he faces not only a criminal prosecution, but also a House Ethics Committee investigation that could recommend his censure or expulsion from the House. Only five lawmakers have ever been expelled from the House: Most recently, Rep. Jim Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, was expelled in 2002 after a jury convicted him of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.
From @sponge444 on Twitter: How can this happen?
Zremski: This appears to be happening for two reasons: New York State election law and Collins' own wishes. State election law made it difficult for Republican leaders to remove Collins from the ballot without shifting him to another contest, such as a Clarence town board seat – but Collins' criminal lawyers objected to that idea.
From Adam Holtz on Twitter: How can @RepChrisCollins represent the people of N.Y. 27 at this time? Shouldn’t he resign now and focus on his defense?
Zremski: He can continue to represent the people of his district, but not as completely as he could have before his indictment. House Speaker Paul Ryan stripped Collins of his committee assignments, meaning that he can still vote on the House floor but not really take part in drawing up legislation. As for the work back in the district – helping constituents with problems with the Social Security Administration or the VA, for example – that can continue as usual because staffers, not the lawmakers themselves, work on those matters.
Should Collins resign and work on his defense? Only the congressman can decide that – but it's also worth noting that running for re-election could be part of his defense. If Collins wins re-election, his lawyers could dangle his possible resignation as a chit to offer prosecutors in negotiations over a plea deal.
From @PizmoGizmo on Twitter: Who appoints his successor if he's convicted and resigns? Or is there an interim election?
Zremski: No successor would be appointed. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo would set the date for a special election to replace Collins. That would mean a period of several months when residents of the 27th district did not have a representative in the House. Some Collins staffers may remain in the interim to handle constituent issues, but staffers typically flee congressional offices that a lawmaker vacates to look for other, more permanent jobs.
From Morgan Cornelius: What happens when he’s sent to prison mid-term?
Zremski: First, Collins says he is innocent and is fighting the federal charges. Whether he is convicted will be determined by the court proceedings.
There is nothing in the Constitution barring convicted felons from serving in Congress, but it's unimaginable that Collins would do so if convicted. If he didn't resign, the House would almost certainly expel him. One of those two things has happened when other members of Congress have been convicted of felonies.
From @ChrisSasiadek on Twitter: If Collins is using his campaign funds for his legal defense, but he doesn’t have a campaign, isn’t that essentially income tax evasion?
Zremski: There is nothing in federal law barring members of Congress from using their campaign funds for their own legal defense – and Collins has already spent $253,938 from his campaign treasury as of June 30 for legal fees. The Collins camp has said, though, that he will pay for his criminal defense from here onward out of his own pockets.
From Cathy Lanski: So ... when’s his next town hall to hear what the constituents he serves want?
Zremski: Collins has never held a town hall in his district, and it seems unlikely he would do so now that he is under indictment.
From Ellen Donigan: Will Buffalo vote him in?
Zremski: Buffalo won't, because Buffalo isn't in the 27th District – which stretches from Buffalo's suburbs to outside Rochester. Republicans have a natural 11-point advantage in that district, so it's likely plenty of Republicans in the district will vote for him. There's been no public polling, though, so it's difficult to know where the race stands.
From Chris Mikucki: Is there a third-party candidate?
Zremski: Yes, there is. It's Larry Piegza, the Reform Party candidate – who, on his website, calls himself "our best chance to keep Republican control in NY-27." Piegza, of West Seneca, is an entrepreneur who founded Gap Technologies, a small company that develops technological products primarily for colleges and universities. He's given $42,000 of his own money to his campaign as of June 30, meaning he's far behind Collins and McMurray in terms of campaign cash. But it's possible he could catch fire and provide a safe harbor for Republicans who are disenchanted with their indicted congressman.
From @mikebhungry on Twitter: Even though Collins hasn’t stood trial or been found guilty of anything, do you anticipate he’ll get fair treatment from local media?
Zremski: Of course he will be treated fairly – but fairness does not amount to us simply repeating everything the Collins campaign says without scrutinizing it. We will evaluate and fact-check both what Collins says and what McMurray has to say.