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Constituents urge judge to get tough on Chris Collins

WASHINGTON – Lock him up!

That's what dozens of former Rep. Chris Collins' constituents urged the judge in his insider trading case to do when he sentences the businessman/politician next week.

The 66 letters and notes to the judge, some of them handwritten and all of them posted in the online court filing system late Wednesday, stand in sharp contrast to the more than 100 neatly assembled and laudatory letters Collins' lawyers filed to defend their client.

Anger oozes from many of the letters from the general public – some but not all generated by the group once known as Citizens Against Collins. Democrats and even some Republicans said Collins, a Republican who lived in Clarence at the time, defrauded voters in New York's 27th Congressional District by running for re-election in 2018 while falsely insisting he was innocent.

"I have never written a letter like this but I find it appalling on so many levels on what Collins has done to my district," said Linda C. Stevens, a retired registered nurse from Wheatfield and a Republican. "I feel duped and angry!"

U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick will sentence Collins in Manhattan on Jan. 17, and the release of the letters from the public is just the latest of several document dumps expected in the case before then.

And in this batch of documents, one former constituent after another dumped on Collins.

"Christopher Collins is a crook. He deserves to go to jail," wrote Judith Keys of Lewiston.

"He put his needs above those of the people and violated his oath to the Constitution," wrote Cynthia Lankenau, a veterinarian from Colden.

"Collins has been a grifter posing as a public servant," wrote Donald A. Ogilvie of Hamburg, former district superintendent at Erie 1 BOCES.

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Such is the vitriol resulting from the Collins case, which began when the Republican from Clarence called his son Cameron from a White House picnic in June 2017 to reveal a devastating secret. The only product produced by a company they both heavily invested in, Innate Immunotherapeutics, had failed in clinical trials – meaning its stock was likely to tank as soon as the news became public.

Cameron Collins started selling his Innate shares the next day, as did his future father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky, and others Cameron Collins told about Innate's coming collapse. The younger Collins and Zarsky thereby shielded themselves from more than $700,000 in losses – which, several letter-writers noted, was tantamount to stealing from other Innate shareholders.

"What about the other investors not tipped off?" wrote Ann Hayes. "Wasn't their stock further devalued because the Collins clan was able to cash out early?"

Federal authorities began investigating, and in August 2018, they arrested the then-congressman along with his son and Zarsky.

Insisting he was innocent, Collins narrowly won re-election in 2018 only to resign last Oct. 1 – the day that he, his son and Zarsky pleaded guilty.

Collins' sudden turnabout enraged many of the letter-writers.

"He ran and ultimately he won his congressional seat back and returned to Congress, knowing that he was guilty of crimes for which he had been indicted," said Rachel T. Hill, a retired prison psychologist from Hamburg. "Now we in New York and in his congressional district are stuck with the bill for a special election."

Chris Collins' recommended prison sentence? A year and a day.

Hill suggested that the judge fine Collins for the cost of the special election to fill his seat, which has not yet been scheduled.

"Why should we pay for his lies?" she asked.

Others noted that the Collins controversy actually began in early 2017, when the Office of Congressional Ethics started investigating his role with Innate.

"Watching him waste three years of our taxes and time while not representing us but himself – and then having the audacity to run and win a re-election and now having no one to represent us – is rubbing salt in our face and the institution of Congress," wrote Edward M. Warnke, a certified public accountant from East Amherst. "He deserves what he gets. I am ashamed that I voted for him in the first place!"

That point of view is far from unanimous. While 66 people wrote to Broderick urging a tough sentence for Collins, six people wrote directly to the judge in support of the former four-term congressman.

Friends defend Collins as the leader Buffalo never really knew

"He is a good man who unthinkingly made a grave error," wrote Richard L. Roach of Youngstown, who praised Collins' work to help property owners affected by flooding along Lake Ontario. "I respectively ask that you be lenient with his sentencing."

Nicholas A. Sinatra, the Buffalo real estate developer whose brother, John L. Sinatra Jr., became a federal judge at Collins' behest, also defended the former lawmaker.

"Please use mercy in your administration of justice," wrote the developer, a real estate partner of Collins who did not mention that fact in his letter to the judge. "Clearly Chris has made mistakes but he is a good, honest man who has served his community and country with integrity."

The vast majority of the people who wrote to the judge disagree.

Lynn Gatto, an associate professor of education at the University of Rochester, said it would be unfair for a wealthy felon like Collins to get off easy when others do not.

"It is a fact that rich white men serve less time than poor black men," Gatto wrote to the judge in the case, who is African American. "I urge you to sentence Chris Collins to the maximum sentence. He deserves it!"

Other letter-writers said that Collins deserves even more punishment than a tough prison sentence.

"I also ask that he be required to forfeit his pension as part of his sentence," wrote Katie Webster of Clarence. "It would be egregious for taxpayers to support him after his criminal activities."

Bob Lonsberry, a conservative talk radio host from the Rochester area, also urged the judge to get tough on Collins.

"While at a reception for members of Congress hosted by the president of the United States, Chris Collins passed illegal insider information in a phone conversation with his son," Lonsberry wrote. "In that setting, at a place sacred to our republic, he chose greed over duty and obedience to the law."

That being the case, Lonsberry told the judge that he should make an example of Collins – just to make sure that other lawmakers don't break the law.

"Punish this one, and thereby scare the others," Lonsberry wrote.

What's next in the Collins case?

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