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Change to GOP rules, court delay could haunt Chris Collins' next term

WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins probably won't be able to fulfill one of the most basic duties of a congressman – serving on a committee – in 2019.

And the year after that, he may well be distracted not just by one court case, but by two, one right after the other.

Those two harsh realities came clear in the days after Collins, a Clarence Republican, grabbed a 2,910-vote lead over Democrat Nathan McMurray in the race for Congress from New York's 27th District.

Both situations stem from Collins' indictment in August on felony insider trading charges.

In the wake of the indictments of Collins and Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, the House Republican Conference this week is set to consider a new set of rules. One of them would force GOP lawmakers to resign their committee assignments if they are indicted on felony charges that could land them in prison for more than two years.

Federal prosecutors charged Collins with fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent in connection with an alleged insider trading scheme. Lawyers familiar with such offenses said that if convicted, Collins would likely have to serve a prison term of up to eight years.

House sources said they expect the rules change to win widespread support. Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, said he would be among those backing it.

"Final judgment on indicted lawmakers is reserved for the voters and the courts, but we support this rule which upholds the integrity of the House while the various processes play out," Reed said on Monday.

Collins spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre downplayed the significance of the proposed rules change.

“Congressman Collins has said all along that he ran for re-election to support the Trump agenda and be a vote against the Democrats’ effort to impeach the president. That hasn’t changed," she said. “While the congressman would love the chance to be back on the committee, it is not and never was a requirement for him to serve his district.”

A bipertisan team from the Erie County Board of Elections began their count of the 2018 absentee ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. They began with the 5588 ballots from the 27th District. A cart is filled with ballots. These are ballots from Clarence. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, removed Collins from the Energy and Commerce Committee on the day he was indicted. But Collins said during his re-election campaign that he would appeal to the House leadership for reinstatement to the committee in the next Congress.

“I would make the pitch that I was re-elected in an open environment and would like to be back on the committee,” he told The Buffalo News in October. “It may or may not work out.”

If he were not allowed back on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Collins said in that interview he would "follow" the panel.

The House, like most legislative bodies, draws up its legislation in committees. And the Energy and Commerce panel, which oversees everything from energy to telecommunications to health care, is widely considered one of the most powerful committees in Congress.

As of Monday – and throughout his campaign against McMurray – Collins' website continued to list him as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee even though he left it months earlier. Asked via email when the website would be changed, Baldassarre did not respond.

Collins' spot on the committee might be seen as problematic for Republicans because he faces allegations regarding his involvement in an Australian biotech firm where he served on the board and because the committee oversees the biotech industry.

The proposed committee rules, which were first reported by Politico, could mean Collins could serve in his seat for more than a year without the ability to work on legislation through a committee.

Collins' trial is not set to begin until Feb. 3, 2020. Collins maintains he is innocent and vows to fight the charges in court.

But Collins' legal troubles could drag on even deeper into the next Congress thanks to a federal judge's ruling in Manhattan late last week.

U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Polk Failla on Friday delayed the Securities and Exchange Commission's civil case against Collins and his co-defendants until after their criminal case is resolved.

"Proceedings in this action are stayed in their entirety," except for a limited amount of information that the SEC can provide to defense attorneys as they begin to prepare their case, Failla wrote in a court order.

Prosecutors requested that the civil action be delayed, as they routinely do in cases where there are parallel criminal and civil actions. Criminal cases are always given priority, as prosecutors fear that complications could arise if parallel civil and criminal cases proceeded together.

The SEC's civil charges stem from the same alleged insider trading scheme as the criminal case.

The congressman is accused of calling his son from a White House picnic in June 2017 to give him insider information about Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm in which they and several others close to the Collins family were heavily invested.

Collins' son, Cameron, and the younger Collins' future father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky, face similar charges.While Collins did not sell stock based on that insider information, prosecutors say his son and Zarsky did.

Collins holds a narrow lead over McMurray, and if Collins' re-election is certified, it will mean he could be facing legal challenges through much of his fourth term in Congress.

For his part, McMurray is still counting on absentee ballots – which will be counted in much of New York's 27th Congressional District starting Tuesday – to lift him over his indicted opponent.

The election results can't be finalized until every ballot is counted.

"This is a slow process, but a necessary one," McMurray said.

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