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Judge rejects Chris Collins' bid for more evidence; bars talk of ethics investigation at trial

NEW YORK — A federal judge has dealt a blow to Rep. Chris Collins' defense team, rejecting two motions aiming to force prosecutors to release more of the evidence they have against the Clarence Republican, who is charged with felony insider trading.

U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick rejected the Collins' lawyer's motion seeking evidence that could conceivably indicate that prosecutors violated the congressman's rights under the Constitution's "Speech or Debate" clause.

But the Collins defense team also got some of what it wanted in the ruling made public Wednesday.

Broderick said that when the case goes to trial, prosecutors will be barred from introducing a wide array of evidence from a separate Office of Congressional Ethics investigation of Collins' relationship with Innate Immunotherapeutics, the Australian biotech firm at the heart of the insider trading case.

The release of Broderick's opinion came on the eve of a key status conference in Manhattan in the case against Collins, his son Cameron Collins and co-defendant Stephen Zarsky.

Collins' lawyers will enter that courtroom Thursday having lost their first bid for legal relief based on the constitutional provision at the heart of their case. Collins' lawyers argue that prosecutors trampled on a constitutional provision aimed at protecting lawmakers from undue influence from other branches of the federal government.

"I find that Defendant Christopher Collins is not legally entitled to the discovery he asserts bears on the privilege established by the Speech or Debate Clause, and so his motion to compel limited production of those materials is DENIED," Broderick wrote in his opinion.

The judge also rejected a Collins defense motion seeking the release of more evidence on other legal grounds.

At the same time, the Collins defense team got some relief in the judge's order. Collins' interview with the Office of Congressional Ethics, other transcripts produced during that office's probe, and any documents used in that separate Congressional investigation cannot be used as evidence in Collins' criminal trial, Broderick ruled.

In addition, prosecutors will not be allowed to cite any testimony concerning the effect of any legislation on Innate.

Broderick issued those restrictions because the Speech or Debate Clause aims to protect congressional actions from pressure from presidents and prosecutors. Congress created the Office of Congressional Ethics, thereby granting its investigations a shield under the Speech or Debate Clause. And legislation affecting Innate would be shielded, too, just because the clause aims to protect all federal lawmaking activities.

Separately, Broderick denied a defense motion aimed at forcing prosecutors to turn over more evidence that might help prove that Collins and his co-defendants are not guilty.

Under a 1963 Supreme Court ruling in a case called Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are required to turn over evidence that might help exonerate federal criminal defendants. But Broderick ruled that in the Collins case, prosecutors had already turned over all the evidence they needed to give to the defense.

Broderick's ruling on those two motions may not be the end of the story. Motions involving the Speech or Debate clause — as well as those involving the so-called "Brady Rule" on evidence that could help the defense — can be appealed before a case goes to trial.

Those potential appeals have threatened to put Collins' Feb. 3, 2020 trial date in jeopardy. In fact, prosecutors have already proposed splitting the trial in two — with Cameron Collins and Zarsky facing jurors first, in February — to allow the congressman time for appeals under the Speech or Debate clause.

The trial date, as well as those potential appeals, will be among the issues discussed at the status conference that Broderick was expected to convene at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

Collins, his son and Zarsky — Cameron Collins' prospective father-in-law — are charged with fraud, conspiracy and lying to the FBI. All three have maintained their innocence.

Prosecutors say Rep. Collins launched a series of insider stock trades with a cell phone call to his son from a White House picnic in late June 2017.

As guests gathered for the picnic, Collins — then an Innate Immunotherapeutics board member — got an email from the company's CEO with devastating news. The company's only product, an experimental treatment for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, had failed in clinical trials.

Rep. Collins' stock was held in Australia, where trading in Innate stock had been halted, and he didn't sell any of his shares. But prosecutors say that thanks to the insider information Cameron Collins got from his father, the younger Collins was able to quickly dump his Innate stock on the U.S. over-the-counter market, thereby saving himself from $570,900 in losses.

Prosecutors also allege that Cameron Collins told Zarsky the bad news, prompting him to sell his Innate shares, too, thereby avoiding $143,900 in losses.

Broderick issued his ruling on the two defense motions Friday but released it publicly on Wednesday after giving both sides several days to comment on whether parts of the opinion should be redacted.

In the end, the judge's 282-word motion appeared in full Wednesday on the federal court system's electronic filing system.

Broderick had previously hinted that he had rejected the two defense motions, telling Collins' lawyers in an earlier court filing that they should come to Thursday's hearing ready to discuss whether they were planning any pre-trial appeals.

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