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Chris Collins lends campaign $500,000, signaling a possible run

WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins put $500,000 of his own money into his campaign fund in mid-June, delivering the strongest signal yet that the Republican from Clarence may run for a fifth term in 2020 even though he is scheduled to go on trial on felony insider trading charges in February.

Collins lent his campaign the money on June 18, according to the second-quarter campaign finance report he filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Collins explained his reasoning in a tweet late Monday that didn't directly mention his loan to his campaign.

"While I will ultimately make a decision about re-election later this year, every one of my campaigns has had the necessary resources to get my message out," Collins said. "This one, should I run, will be no different."

Collins' statement to the FEC, though, looked like the type he has filed before previous campaigns. Running against then-Rep. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, in 2012, Collins lent his campaign $500,000 – a sum he later paid back with money he raised.

Also in this year's second quarter, Collins held a small-dollar fundraiser and took in political action committee donations of $2,000 from the Tuesday Group – which includes moderate Republicans in the House – and $1,000 from the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Collins' decision to infuse big money into his campaign left him with a campaign war chest of $665,243.

The only announced candidate for the Republican nomination in New York's 27th Congressional District, State Sen. Chris Jacobs of Buffalo, had $747,878 in his federal campaign account after a six-week fundraising blitz that followed the mid-May announcement of his campaign.

Chris Jacobs has $747,878 head start in race for Chris Collins' seat

Jacobs' political consultant, Cam Savage, said the campaign would not comment on Collins' sudden cash infusion.

Nate McMurray, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Collins in 2018 and who is likely to run for the congressional seat again, raised $10,388 for the first quarter. That left him with a campaign war chest of only $20,973 as of March 31. His second quarter report was not yet available.

Duane Whitmer, a Hamburg accountant and Libertarian candidate for Collins' seat, raised $9,477 but spent $8,779 of it, leaving him with only $698 in his campaign account as of June 30.

Collins made millions as a businessman before entering politics, and according to his personal financial disclosure statement, he was worth somewhere between $40.4 million and $114.1 million at the end of last year.

McMurray said that wealth gives Collins a huge advantage. He predicted a bruising Republican battle between Jacobs – who lent $325,000 of his own money to his effort – and Collins.

"I think the fact that he (Collins) can just write a check like this indicates the problem with politics in America today," McMurray said. "I mean, regular people really don't have a shot."

And while Collins insists he is innocent and plans to fight the charges against him in court, McMurray repeated his allegation that Collins wants to hold on to his seat only as a bargaining chip that he might be able to trade away in a plea deal.

Rep. Chris Collins leaving a federal courthouse in New York City after his arrest in August 2018. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

"He's going to spend and spend and spend just to hold on to that position because he knows it's his get-out-of-jail-free card," McMurray said.

Collins defeated McMurray in a toughly contested election only three months after federal prosecutors charged the congressman with fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent.

Prosecutors say that in June 2017, Collins got inside information about an Australian biotech, Innate Immunotherapeutics, in which he was heavily invested. The information said the company's only product, an experimental treatment for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, had failed in clinical trials.

According to prosecutors, Collins shared that information with his son Cameron, thereby setting off a series of illegal insider stock trades that meant Cameron Collins and others averted huge financial losses when the company's stock crashed.

Last month, The Buffalo News reported on an FBI affidavit that showed that one of Collins' longtime political aides, Christopher Grant, also dumped Innate stock in June 2017, as did two relatives of Michael Hook, another longtime Collins aide. Local businessman Gerald A. Buchheit Jr., a longtime Collins friend, dumped the stock, too. Grant, Hook and Buchheit were not charged with crimes in connection with their sales of Innate stock.

The Collins FEC report seems to indicate that the insider trading case left few hard feeling among Collins' associates. Collins paid Hook $4,000 in political consulting fees during the second quarter, and Buchheit gave the congressman a $55 campaign contribution.

Other local congressional candidates filed reports with the FEC on Monday as well.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat who represents the Buffalo-based and heavily Democratic 26th district, raised $162,330, with about 77% his contributions coming from political action committees representing a wide array of labor and business interests. Higgins had $997,426 on hand as of June 30.

No Republican has yet surfaced to challenge Higgins. Local progressive activist Emin Eddie Egriu has said he plans to challenge Higgins in a Democratic primary, but Egriu's federal campaign finance statements were not yet available.

Meanwhile in the Southern Tier's 23rd district, Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, raised $503,731, with about 62 percent of his contributions coming from PACs, many of them representing businesses. Reed – who maintains a full-time campaign operation that spent $305,164 in the three months ending June 30 – reported $471,329 on hand at the end of the quarter.

Tracy Mitrano, the Democrat who lost to Reed in 2018 and who is running again, raised $135,158 during the second quarter. Mitrano finished with only $116,946 in the bank because she spent $35,932 on her campaign.

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