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Those who complained about Chris Collins breathe sigh of relief

NEW YORK – They complained about then-Rep. Chris Collins long before prosecutors did.

And on Wednesday, a day after the Clarence Republican pleaded guilty to two felony insider trading charges and resigned in disgrace, many of the people who were on to Collins early said they were glad to see justice being done.

"My first reaction was relief, followed almost immediately by satisfaction and renewed hope," said Cecily G. Molak, a retired lawyer and a Republican from Honeoye Falls in Collins’ congressional district. "Relief that there was finally closure, satisfaction that the legal system worked as it should."

Molak filed a complaint against Collins with the Office of Congressional Ethics in March 2017, three months before Collins launched a series of illegal insider stock trades with a phone call to his son from the White House lawn.

She and several others complained about Collins' already-apparent ties to an Australian biotech called Innate Immunotherapeutics. Collins had been touting the company's stock to business contacts in Buffalo as well as his colleagues in the House, and Molak was among those sick of it.

[Related: Blindsided by resignation, Collins loyalists say he pleaded guilty to shield his son]

Molak wondered if language Collins inserted into federal legislation were intended to benefit Innate. She wondered, too, if Collins had violated a federal law barring insider stock trading among members of Congress when he tipped off his associates before Innate issued new stock.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a good-government group, suggested the same things even earlier than Molak. He complained to the ethics office and other agencies about Collins in January 2017.

The ethics office took up those complaints, and in October 2017 said there was "substantial reason to believe" that Collins violated federal law with the actions he took. That investigation, however, was entirely separate from the case federal prosecutors eventually brought against Collins for the insider trading scheme.

On Wednesday, Holman was the only person interviewed for this story who did not stress that Collins was getting the sort of punishment he deserved. On the contrary, Holman said Collins deserved more than the maximum sentence of 57 months in prison that the two sides agreed to in the plea agreement.

The judge in the case can give Collins that sentence or a higher or lower one in a Jan. 17, 2020, sentencing hearing. And Holman said he hopes the judge goes tough on Collins.

"Chris Collins' whole service in Congress has been very self-serving," he said. "His service here in Washington, D.C., was not noble. It was profiteering in nature. So I would favor a longer sentence."

Both Molak's complaint and Holman's predate a June 2017 Buffalo News story that said that it appeared that some Innate insiders had dumped their stock before a public announcement that the company's one product, a drug for multiple sclerosis, had failed in clinical trials.

Several Australian investment experts complained about an unusual trading pattern in Innate stock that indicated possible insider trading. And so did Anthony J. Ogorek, a longtime financial planner from Williamsville – making him the first Buffalo-area source who noticed the actions that would lead to Collins indictment.

Asked about Collins' guilty plea on Wednesday, Ogorek said it's obvious that it will lead to prison time for the former congressman.

"If a congressman can engage in insider trading and not receive any prison time, then the public's going to look at this and say: 'Well, you know, if he can get away with it, in his exalted position, what's to prevent me from doing it?' Or people will say: 'I don't think I want to play in that game anymore, and I'm going to take my money out of the capital markets and invest it somewhere else.' "

Insider trading is not a victimless crime, Ogorek noted. Collins' insider stock tip saved his son, Cameron, and Stephen Zarsky, Cameron Collins' prospective father-in-law, more than $700,000.

"That means somebody else absorbed $700,000 of losses," Ogorek noted. "And that's the real issue. It's really a theft."

One major Washington figure talked in such strong words about Collins all through 2017: Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Fairport Democrat.

She filed complaints about Collins with New York prosecutors months before and right after the News reported about the apparent insider trading involving Innate. But she died at the age of 88 in March 2018, five months before Collins' arrest.

Not surprisingly, people who knew Slaughter well looked at Collins's plea deal and thought of her.

“Louise reported this illegal conduct as soon as she heard about it because she cared about this institution and members upholding the public trust," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who replaced Slaughter as the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee. "Chris Collins violated that trust to benefit himself and his family."

Slaughter's daughter, Robin Slaughter Minerva, said she recalls talking with her mother about whether she ought to file ethics complaints about a congressman who represented a neighboring district. But her mother wouldn't budge, insisting it was the right thing to do.

Asked on Wednesday how her mother would have reacted to Collins' guilty plea, Minerva said Slaughter probably would be pleased to see justice being done, while remaining aghast at his actions.

"She would be satisfied," Minerva said. "She probably wouldn't be happy or proud."

For her part, Molak – the citizen who complained to the ethics office about Collins – noted that the complaints that she and others filed ultimately made a difference.

"I hope that others who are fed up with unethical behavior will see that filing a complaint really does work, and will decide to take action themselves," Molak said.

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