WASHINGTON — Prosecutors in the felony insider trading case against Rep. Chris Collins this week raised the possibility of pushing back his Feb. 3 trial — so long as his son Cameron, as well as alleged co-conspirator Stephen Zarsky, still go to trial on that date.
Faced with the likelihood that the congressman's defense team will file appeals that could force the trial to be postponed, prosecutors sent the judge in the case a letter late Tuesday spelling out two options.
One sets out a brisk schedule for the case that aims to ensure that Collins exhausts his appeals by the scheduled trial date.
But the other option would break the case into two. That would force Collins to watch from the sidelines as his son and Zarsky go on trial months before the congressman, a Republican from Clarence, faces a jury of his peers.
"The government writes to make its position clear that the February 2020 trial should proceed as scheduled, including against only Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky if necessary," Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, said in the letter to U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick.
Berman's letter came a week after Collins' top lawyer told the judge that prosecutors had violated Rep. Collins' rights under the Constitution's "Speech or Debate Clause," which aims to protect federal lawmakers from undue intrusions from the executive or judicial branches.
The Collins team says prosecutors violated the lawmaker's rights under that clause by citing a separate Office of Congressional Ethics investigation into his relationship with Innate Immunotherapeutics, the company at the center of the Collins stock trading scandal, and by citing communications between Collins and one of his congressional aides.
Prosecutors issued a revised indictment in the case in early August in hopes of steering clear of the defense team's objections, but Collins attorney Jonathan R. Barr told Broderick in a letter last week that the defense still wants him to rule on a motion that would force prosecutors to turn over more evidence. The defense team wants to see whether that evidence includes proof that a Speech or Debate violation occurred.
Collins also contends that once Broderick issues any such ruling, the congressman can appeal the decision all the way to the Supreme Court — a move that could force a delay in the trial.
The Collins defense team also is expected to file a separate motion to dismiss the case based on the alleged constitutional violation, which could also delay the trial.
To prevent that, Berman suggested that Broderick set the last filing deadline on any additional Speech or Debate motions be set no later than Oct. 21. Broderick would then have three weeks to rule on any such motions.
In order to allow time for the appeals to be resolved before early February, "any of Congressman Collins’s motions relating in any way to Speech or Debate issues would need to be resolved by Nov. 11, 2019," Berman wrote.
Prosecutors want the trial to move forward as planned, Berman said, for two reasons: A quick resolution of any case serves justice best, he wrote; and besides, delays could hurt the government's case against Collins because the memory of witnesses could fade with time.
"That concern is particularly acute here, because any adjournment of the trial date will risk pushing the trial into the 2020 primary and general election cycle," Berman wrote.
Berman acknowledged, though, that it's possible that the trial will have to be broken in two. That's possible because neither Cameron Collins nor Stephen Zarsky — Cameron Collins' prospective father-in-law — are members of Congress, meaning the Speech or Debate Clause doesn't protect them in any way.
"Because of the strong public interest in seeing the facts of this case adjudicated as soon as possible, the government is prepared to proceed to trial against Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky in February 2020," Berman said.
Politically, that could be a worst-case scenario for Collins, who is still considering running for a fifth term next year. It would mean that the case against him would be spelled out in court months before his own case could be resolved. And it could push the congressman's own trial either closer to the June Republican primary — in which Collins already faces several challengers — or the November general election.
Collins stands accused of launching a series of insider stock trades with a call to his son from a White House picnic in June 2017.
A longtime Innate board member, Collins got an email that night from the company's CEO telling him that Innate's only product, an experimental treatment for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, had failed in clinical trials.
Prosecutors say Collins then called his son Cameron, who started dumping his shares in Innate the next day, before the bad news became public. They say Cameron Collins shielded himself from $570,900 in losses by selling his Innate shares then.
And they say Cameron Collins shared the bad news with Zarsky, who dumped his Innate stock, thereby averting $143,900 in losses.
All three men have said they are innocent. But prosecutors, who have phone logs showing Collins calling his son along with records of the subsequent stock trades, have indicated that it's a rather simple case, aside from Collins' arguments on the Speech or Debate Clause.
Berman gave another hint of how simple he thinks the case is in his letter to the judge.
"Trial will be short," Berman said. "It should last two weeks — or less."