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Chris Collins to stand trial in 2020; Nate McMurray calls delay an 'injustice'

NEW YORK — Rep. Chris Collins won't stand trial on criminal insider trading charges until Feb. 3, 2020, more than halfway through his next congressional term if the embattled Republican from Clarence wins re-election in November.

U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick set that trial date Thursday after the Collins legal team asked for more time to prepare a defense. Prosecutors, in contrast, said they would be ready to go to trial by the middle of next year.

The delayed trial date would come nearly 18 months after Collins' arrest, and it prompted a heated reaction from Collins' Democratic opponent, Grand Island Supervisor Nathan McMurray.

"He's going to be listening to his lawyers all this time," McMurray said of Collins. "He's not going to be listening to us. I think it's an incredible injustice."

Collins' campaign spokeswoman, Natalie Baldassarre, said the campaign will not be commenting on the congressman's criminal trial.

But lawyers on the Collins legal team told Broderick they had legitimate reasons to push for a later trial date.

They said that since the allegations in the case involve the sale of stock in an Australian company, evidence may have to be gathered from overseas. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a separate civil case against Collins and may have evidence that the defense team needs to review before the criminal trial, too.

"It makes it very hard for us to say at this point that we will be prepared for a trial in early spring or summer of 2019," said Jonathan New, one of Collins' defense attorneys.

Prosecutors didn't buy that argument.

"They have the materials that they need already," Hartman said. "It is our view, Judge, that there is a strong public interest in having these allegations resolved in 2019."

Hearing those arguments, Broderick asked the prosecutors to confer with the defense team and consider possible trial dates in July or August 2019 or in January or February of 2020. The judge offered those limited options because his calendar already includes a time-consuming trial set to begin in October 2019: the federal murder case against Sayfullo Saipov of New Jersey, who is accused of the October 2017 bike path truck attack in New York that resulted in eight deaths.

After the defense team and prosecutors conferred, Broderick set the 2020 court date for Collins — which seemed  to have immediate political implications.

The decision means the criminal case against Collins could be hanging over his head for a least another 14 months and that during that stretch, the case could conceivably interfere with his ability to represent New York's 27th district, a sprawling area connecting the Buffalo and Rochester suburbs.

McMurray argued that the prolonged legal case and Collins' other activities mean he would be anything but a full-time representative.

"This is a fraudulent campaign," said McMurray, who noted that Collins has been removed from the Energy and Commerce Committee pending the result of the court case, but that he's kept a hand in his private businesses.

"He's not on any committees," McMurray said. "He's trying to run all these companies while he's preparing for a criminal trial that could result in him being sent to prison for a long time. He knows he can't represent us. He's doing this for his own good."

McMurray again argued that Collins wants to use another term in Congress as a bargaining chip in negotiations for a plea deal.

"I'm asking people to give me two years to earn their trust. He's asking for two years to use as a coin in a legal trial," McMurray said.

Asked earlier this week if Collins would commit to serving in the next Congress and not resigning as part of a plea bargain, Baldassarre refused to respond to the question.

Collins faces charges of fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent in connection with an alleged insider trading scheme. Prosecutors say he called his son Cameron with inside information about the failed clinical trial of a drug made by Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech company in which both the congressman and his son were heavily invested.

Cameron Collins and his prospective father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky of New Jersey, face similar charges in the case. Prosecutors say Cameron Collins and Zarsky dumped Innate shares to avoid losses, knowing the stock would tank once the company announced its trial results.

Hartman said prosecutors think their case against Collins and his codefendants will take about two weeks of trial time. Leaving time for opening and closing arguments and the defense's case, that means the trial is likely to last at least three weeks.

Collins, his son and Zarsky all argue that they are innocent, but their lawyers said they needed a lot of time to build the case to prove their innocence.

"We think the test for our client in terms of fairness is not speed and convenience of the prosecutors but what's right and fair for a
trial for someone who's charged with a criminal offense," said Mauro M. Wolfe, Zarsky's attorney.

But before agreeing to the 2020 trial date, Hartman raised another concern about pushing the trial that far into the future: He noted that 2020, like 2018, is an election year. So if Collins wins re-election this year, his legal team could argue at some point that the trial ought to be pushed back until after the 2020 election, Hartman said.

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