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Editorial: Chris Collins does the right thing

Chris Collins did the right thing on Tuesday, though it took more than a year of denials, accusations and implausible claims of innocence. Nevertheless, with his resignation on Monday, Collins became a former congressman and following his guilty plea Tuesday, a felon.

With those actions, he gave the residents of the poorly served 27th Congressional District the chance to elect someone with their interests at heart. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to schedule a special election for the seat, though the date is undetermined.

Collins, a Republican who was serving his fourth term in Congress, admitted to a judge that he knew he was breaking the law when he gave his son a heads up about stocks that were about to tank. With that, prosecutors allege, Cameron Collins dumped his shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics, as did his prospective father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky. Both men are expected to enter their own guilty pleas today.

Collins expressed what sounded like real remorse on Tuesday as he changed his plea to guilty, but some who know him say he still thinks he is innocent. In their view, he pleaded guilty only in an effort to protect his son, to whom he apologized in court.

That’s certainly the way he has sounded since the day of his arrest in August 2018, and even as recently as three weeks ago. “I continue to say I’m innocent and have every confidence I will be exonerated,” Collins told reporters on Sept. 12.

In July he was even more dismissive of the charges, which he waved off as a “circumstantial case” brought by prosecutors with “tunnel vision.”

“Why would I ever even enter a plea deal?” he asked then. “I’m innocent.”

And – as is the habit today of politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar – he accused the news media, including this newspaper, of dealing in “fake news,” even though he knew it was a lie. As he admitted to U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick on Tuesday, “When I did these things, I knew they were illegal and improper.”

Collins’ disgrace carries a lesson for voters everywhere: electing a businessman to office is no guarantee of competence or even honesty. That belief is an enduring myth in American civic life.

Businessmen and women certainly can bring valuable qualities to public office. Some, such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have done exceptionally well for their constituents.

But businesspeople are not all of the same stripe. Some are individuals of high ethical standards, while others … aren’t. Some have little trouble breaking the law. In that, they are like any other group of people. Character counts.

Collins pleaded guilty to two charges: one of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and one of making false statements to the FBI. His sentencing is scheduled for January, when Broderick can send him to federal prison for up to five years on each count followed by two years of supervised release. He could also impose a fine of $250,000 or more. Collins has agreed not to appeal any sentence of up to 57 months behind bars.

Broderick will weigh many factors in considering his sentence. We hope he keeps in mind whoever got stuck with the stocks allegedly dumped by Collins' son and Zarsky. Someone took a bath, maybe was ruined. This isn’t a victimless crime.

Collins says he is profoundly sorry and it’s fair to say the public has never seen this side of him. He is more known for the sort of in-your-face arrogance that has been on display since his arrest.

But people can change and we hope Collins is one of them, because otherwise, he’s just another powerful man who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. The difference may be counted in prison years.

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