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Friends defend Collins as the leader Buffalo never really knew

WASHINGTON – A Chris Collins that Buffalo never really knew emerges from the 170 pages of letters the former congressman's lawyers submitted in hopes of winning a soft sentence for a man who admitted passing an inside stock tip to his son.

Nowhere to be found in those pages is the brash politician who pushed his pet stock on the floor of the House of Representatives. Instead there's a kinder, gentler Chris Collins – a family man, a leader of Boy Scouts, a do-gooder who did wrong once but who doesn't deserve a harsh sentence for it.

Those letters, filed in federal court late Tuesday, provide the evidence Collins' lawyers cite in a sentencing memo in which they argue that the former Republican congressman from Clarence deserves home confinement at his residence in Florida rather than a prison term.

"Our family has suffered terribly since the beginning of this ordeal," wrote Mary Collins, the former lawmaker's wife. "As a mother and wife, I find myself reduced often to uncontrollable tears. Chris has been so devastated and ashamed of his actions that he finds it hard to go back home to Buffalo, where my whole world is."

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

The letters assembled by Collins' lawyers stand in sharp contrast to most of those filed late Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick, who will sentence Collins on Jan. 17. Many of those letters – which will be detailed in a forthcoming story – came from voters in Collins' former congressional district, and most were harshly critical.

"We, the constituents of NY-27, have been snubbed, insulted, delayed, marginalized, duped and finally used by Mr. Collins," wrote Gary Bernstein of Clarence, who requested "no further leniency" at Collins' sentencing.

That has been a common sentiment among some outspoken critics of Collins, who have complained that he snubbed constituents by never holding town meetings. Long before he got arrested, critics also attacked Collins for his close relationship with an Australian biotech and his work on legislation that could have benefited the company.

"What about other investors not tipped off?" asked Cindy Fleischer of Menden in a separate letter to the judge. "Wasn't their stock further devalued because the Collins clan was able to cash out early? He was thinking of only himself and his family."

None of the more than 100 people who wrote letters on Collins' behalf defended what he did. But many said it left them flabbergasted, just because it did not comport with the Chris Collins they knew.

"I can't explain his behavior, but I can say with all sincerity that this was completely out of character," wrote Collins' brother, Edward "Ted" Collins.

A family man

Despite his Oct. 1 guilty plea, family members and associates of Collins stress in their letters that he is an excellent family man.

And between the lines, the letters reveal the great stress the Collins family has been under since his August 2018 arrest – and not just because of his arrest.

Collins was charged with – and later admitted to – giving his son Cameron a stock tip about Innate Immunotherapeutics, the Australian biotech where Collins sat on the board. Cameron Collins dumped his Innate stock based on that tip, as did Stephen Zarsky, Cameron's prospective father-in-law. Both Cameron Collins and Zarsky also got arrested in August 2018.

And in December of that year, Chris Collins' daughter Caitlin was diagnosed with a serious medical condition, which is redacted from the letter she sent the judge.

In Caitlin Collins' letter to the judge, she said that at her request, her father organized a family trip to her favorite place in the world – Disney World – in March of last year.

"I wasn't sure how my family would react to the added annoyance and difficulty my condition would cause, but my dad pushed me around Disney World in that wheelchair as if his life depended on it," Caitlin Collins wrote.

Two months earlier, while Collins was still serving in Congress and insisting he was innocent of the charges against him, his mother died.

"When our mother passed away in January, he came to sit beside her death bed to make sure she knew how much he loved her and wanted to thank her for being the best mother a son could ask for," Collins' sister, Claudia Topping, wrote last October in a letter to the judge in the case. "The encounter brought us all to tears."

That kind of family devotion is actually what got Collins in trouble with the law, several people said in their letters to the judge.

"I suspect he must have panicked following receipt of bad news and acted to protect his son, like many imperfect human fathers would do in a similar situation," wrote E. Ronald Graham Chairman/CEO of Volland Electric, one of Collins' companies.

An Eagle Scout

Chris Collins is an Eagle Scout, as is his son. And to hear the former congressman's friends tell it, he's always acted like one.

Not only did Chris Collins become a scoutmaster, but also a businessman who led by strength of character and generosity, his friends told the judge.

Richard F. Nowak, a scoutmaster who served alongside Collins in that role, portrayed Collins as a positive role model.

"Despite his busy work schedule, Chris attended almost every scout meeting, campouts, fundraisers and many other activities the troop was involved in," Nowak said.

Victor A. Martucci of Clarence wrote that shortly after his son joined the Cub Scouts, he met Collins. Martucci recalled a Boy Scout den meeting in a Clarence high school that began in a disorderly manner until a natural-born leader stepped in.

"This confident gentleman stepped into the middle of the chaos, raised his hand high in the air making the peace sign, and – magically – order and quiet permeated the room," Martucci wrote. "That gentleman, that leader was Chris Collins."

The letters to the judge are filled with other examples of Collins living the Boy Scout oath and doing a good turn often and helping when needed.

Elizabeth Donatello Vito, a former Niagara County prosecutor, noted how supportive Collins and his wife were when she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the county. Sawrie Becker, a longtime friend of Collins, said he helped her get a job when her husband came down with a progressive and eventually fatal neurological condition. And at Bloch Industries in Rochester, Collins encouraged managers to hire ex-convicts – and when that happened, Collins even loaned them money to help them resettle into life outside of prison.

"I was able to watch Chris interact with these former convicts, listen and learn about their life stories often filled with hardships, and show compassion for them while supporting their efforts at rebuilding their lives," wrote Brian J. Geary, Collins' former business partner at Bloch Industries.

All of this stands in sharp contrast to the image Collins cultivated in public as a hard-charging businessman with the bottom-line sense to run government better.

"Quite frankly, it was professionally frustrating because Chris did not want me to share positive, private details that would have helped him in the public eye," wrote Stefan Mychajliw, a former Collins spokesman who now serves as Erie County comptroller. "All of the stories about his charitable works, the good he did for others, even private anecdotes that would have helped his image politically, he asked me to keep quiet."

An uncharacteristic mistake

Collins made his mark in business before winning a race for Erie County executive in 2007 and for Congress in 2012. And those who wrote to the judge on his behalf uniformly portrayed his stock tip to his son as a jarring anomaly.

"Chris is a driven serial entrepreneur himself and has created hundreds of jobs for people while investing in medical, industrial and manufacturing businesses," wrote Joseph M. McMahon, Collins' business partner in Audubon Machinery.

W.C. Kolkebeck,  a longtime Collins friend and former business partner, noted that Collins saved hundreds of jobs locally when he bought out Westinghouse's local gear operation. Despite his arrest and subsequent guilty plea, "Chris is an honest and good person," Kolkebeck wrote.

Several others noted that Collins also enjoyed great success in public life. Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, joined several others in lauding his work with the Families of Continental Flight 3407.

Simon Wilkinson, Innate's former CEO, said that by tipping his son about Innate's bad news – that the clinical trial of its only drug had failed – Collins was likely acting emotionally and irrationally.

"I was shocked to learn of the allegations made against Mr Collins last year," Wilkinson wrote. "Given Mr Collins personal wealth, I can only think that he had something akin to a 'brain explosion' upon learning of the completely unexpected clinical trial result."

But Paul D. Reid of Lockport, who came to know Collins through a group of young business leaders decades ago, said Collin's actions may simply showed him trying to protect his son.

"Sadly, it may have been his dedication to his family that sealed his fate," Reid said.

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