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Ethics experts call for further reforms in response to Collins scandal

WASHINGTON — The House has only just begun cleaning up its act in the wake of last year's arrest of Rep. Chris Collins — and the proof lies in what lawmakers like Collins can still do, legally and without reproach.

That's the message a panel of ethics experts brought Thursday to a bipartisan House task force charged with drawing up new ethics rules based on lessons learned after the arrest of Collins, a Clarence Republican facing felony insider trading charges.

"There are innumerable ways members (of Congress) can have, or create the perception of, a conflict of interest," said Ben Hammer, external relations associate at GovTrack.us, a nonprofit that maintains a Congressional Misconduct Database.

Most notably, ethics experts expressed worries about lawmakers who sit on the boards of privately owned companies, or who serve as partners in other businesses or who are directors of nonprofit organizations.

According to Collins' 2018 personal financial disclosure report, as of the end of last year, he still did all three.

A House resolution passed earlier this year shut down one pathway to potential conflicts. It bars lawmakers from serving on the boards of publicly traded companies — which is what Collins did, and how he got the insider information that prosecutors said he used illegally.

But that House resolution also calls on the Ethics Committee to draw up further rules limiting the outside positions lawmakers can hold that can result in conflicts of interest.

The bipartisan task force that met Thursday is charged with proposing those additional rules.

And when it does that, it should bar lawmakers from serving on the boards of privately held corporations too, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a good government group. He said lawmakers with close ties to privately owned companies can use their power to benefit those companies.

"The same types of conflicts of interest apply," Holman said.

According to Collins' latest personal financial disclosure report, he still served on the boards of two privately held firms: Audubon Machinery Corp., a North Tonawanda maker of oxygen systems for the health care industry as well as other products; and Volland Electric Equipment Corp., of Cheektowaga.

Both companies could conceivably have some interest in the activities of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the panel Collins served on until he was barred from House committees after his arrest. That panel oversees the health care and energy industries.

But under a rules change suggested by Delaney Marsco, the legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, lawmakers could never again join a committee that oversees their business interests.

"Before serving on a House committee, a member, officer or employee (of the House) should be required to resign any position with an entity that is overseen by the committee," she said.

Holman expressed concerns about lawmakers serving as partners in limited liability corporations, or LLCs. Collins' latest disclosure form lists him as a partner in nine such entities — many of them real estate partnerships.

Such partnerships can raise the same conflict of interest issues as other kinds of companies, Holman said.

"At least require a broader disclosure of all the members who are sitting on a particular LLC that involves a lawmaker as well," Holman said. "That way we can determine if there's a conflict of interest."

Another ethics expert even voiced concerns about lawmakers and their staffers serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations.

Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it would be especially problematic if a lawmaker or staffer were to serve on the board of an educational institution if that person were involved in education policymaking.

But Sherman raised concerns about a House member or staffer serving on the board of a group like the Boy Scouts — something else Collins does. He has served for years as a director of the Greater Niagara Frontier Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

"If they were on the board of the Scouts, depending on their responsibilities in office, that outside position could conflict with their role as a congressional employee," Sherman said.

Collins' spokeswoman, Jennifer Brown, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday's ethics hearing.

Collins is charged with fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent. While he maintains his innocence, federal prosecutors in New York say he launched a series of insider stock trades involving Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm, with a phone call to his son in June 2017. Collins served on Innate's board at the time.

And while some Republicans have defended Collins, the Republican on the ethics task force — Rep. Van Taylor, of Texas — expressed no disagreements with the panel's Democrat, Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, during Thursday's session.

"Our task is very narrow," and totally focused on preventing lawmakers from serving in outside positions that could pose conflicts, Taylor said.

"We're going to move forward rather quickly and create a rule," Wild said.

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