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Behind the Collins scandal: How one phone call devastated two families

WASHINGTON – Chris Collins didn't just destroy his congressional career and put himself at risk of imprisonment when he called his son Cameron to share an inside stock tip in June 2017.

He destroyed his dream that his son would be his political heir.

And he led Cameron and his future father-in-law into a scheme that turned them into felons, destroyed the careers of some of their loved ones and postponed for years the wedding of the couple that hopes to bear Chris Collins' grandchildren someday.

Those are some of the bitter – and, in some cases, newly revealed – facts that emerge from hundreds of pages of letters from those caught up in the Collins scandal and their friends. Cameron Collins' lawyers and those who represent Stephen Zarsky, Cameron's co-conspirator and father of his fiance, filed the letters along with memos about their clients in federal court in Manhattan last week.

Together, those pages offer rich portraits of Cameron Collins and Zarsky while making clear that the Collins saga is not just a political scandal. It is also a sprawling self-inflicted tragedy for two families that will culminate in the next two weeks as Chris Collins, his son and Zarsky are sentenced for their crimes.

"We've all been living in such horror and limbo not knowing what the future holds," wrote Dorothy Zarsky, the mother of Cameron's fiance and wife of one of his co-conspirators, Stephen Zarsky, in a letter to the judge.

An 'outstanding' young man

Cameron Collins' businessman father gave him an unusual and fateful gift at age 12: shares of stock in a company that would come to be known as Innate Immunotherapeutics.

But Cameron Collins wasn't just born wealthy enough to have a stock portfolio in middle school. He was also a high achiever, as was noted in a 2006 Buffalo News story that his lawyers filed with the court.

"Class Act/An outstanding young Western New Yorker," read the headline on that story, which detailed how Cameron Collin, at 13, became the region's youngest Eagle Scout.

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Chris Collins certainly thought his son was outstanding.

"His father had once confided that he hoped one day Cameron would take his place in government," wrote Julia Carey, the mother of one of Cameron's college friends. "My immediate thought was: no way. Cam takes after his mom and is not big on politics. He has the personality and many more of the interests of a typical engineer."

Those interests led Cameron Collins from Nichols School to Villanova University, where he got a degree in electrical engineering and – according to several letters to the judge – earned a reputation as an industrious sort and a friend to all.

"When some bit of technology would break, others would throw it out, but Cam would take it apart and begin soldering the motherboard," his friend Filip Stransky wrote. "In moments of tension or aggression, others would let their emotions get the best of them, while Cam would remain calm, apply logic and solve the conflict like a math problem."

Cameron Collins arrives at Federal District Court in Manhattan before pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

Lauren Zarsky, an accounting major at Villanova, said she quickly fell for this quiet, athletic young man who kept helping friends and family without even being asked.

"Cameron’s mind seems to work differently than the average person’s – he sees problems as opportunities to make a positive contribution," she wrote in a letter to the judge. "He brings peace into every room he enters."

But he wasn't the romantic type.

"I remember for one of our first Valentine’s Days as a couple, he bought me a computer hard drive because I had been complaining about the speed of my laptop," Lauren told the judge in a letter.  "It’s probably safe to say that most people would get their girlfriend chocolate or flowers, but not Cameron."

Still, she loved him, and so did her mother.

"We were so happy when Lauren and Cameron got engaged," Dorothy Zarksy wrote. "It was a parent's dream come true."

A difficult life

Like Cameron Collins, Stephen Zarsky grew up as the son of a businessman. The similarities end there.

Raised in a middle-class family in Summit, N.J., Zarsky overcame "terrible hardships" throughout his life, his lawyers wrote in a memo to the judge in the case.

"Mr. Zarsky's life is a compelling story of someone who was raised under extremely difficult and unsupportive family circumstances, who then became the heart and backbone of his own family despite these early difficulties," his lawyers wrote.

Music was Stephen Zarsky's first passion, but over time – after attending junior college and earning a philosophy degree from the University of Florida – he got a degree in computer programming and settled into a career as an IT program manager.

His personality didn't quite fit the computer geek stereotype.

"He always brings a smile and a joke to start the day and brings joy to everyone," recalled a work friend, Gary Guthreau.

Stephen Zarsky, center, leaves Federal District Court in Manhattan on Oct. 3, 2019. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

But trouble lurked behind Zarsky's smiles. The hulking, bearded Zarsky said in court last fall he had been treated for alcoholism, that he was seeing a psychiatrist and that he was on medication for high cholesterol.

Zarsky's lawyers devote two and a half pages of their memo to their client's health. That passage is redacted from the public version of the document, but further hints of Zarsky's troubles can be found in the exhibits his lawyers filed, which include a report titled "Treatment Denied – the Mental Health Crisis in Federal Prisons."

Zarsky's daughter, Lauren, told the judge in a letter: "My father is an emotional human being." And it appears that he reacted emotionally when he poured his retirement savings into Innate stock.

"He invested in Innate because he hoped to support the endeavors of his daughter's future husband and father-in-law and benefit his immediate family," Zarsky's lawyers wrote.

The fateful call

Cameron Collins was at the New Jersey condo he shared with Lauren Zarsky when his father called him in a panic on the night of June 22, 2017.

His father was on the White House lawn, at a picnic for members of Congress. There, the Republican congressman from Clarence and longtime Innate Immunotherapeutics board member got some devastating news via email. The clinical trials of that Australian biotech's only product, a multiple sclerosis drug, had failed. As soon as the public found out, the stock he had invested millions in – the stock he gifted to his son years earlier and recommended to congressional and business colleagues – would be nearly worthless.

"I was in a very emotional state at that moment in time, and I called my son Cameron," Chris Collins told the judge last October. "Although I can't remember exactly what I said to him, I certainly know I made it clear, with the news of Innate's drug trial, that the trial had not succeeded and that, understanding he was a shareholder, that if he could trade the stock, he would."

Chris Collins couldn't dump his own Innate stock, but Cameron Collins dumped his, saving himself from $571,000 in losses. Then he shared Innate's inside information with "a few close loved ones" – Zarsky, his wife and daughter.

"At the time I did these things, I knew that I and others would avoid losses by selling our shares, and I knew what I was doing was wrong and illegal," Cameron Collins said in court last fall.

Rep. Chris Collins leaving a federal courthouse in New York City after his arrest in August 2018. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

Stephen Zarsky took Innate's bad news especially hard.

"I was beside myself over losing all of my retirement savings," a weeping Zarsky told the judge in October. "On the morning of June 23rd of 2017, out of fear and in agreement with my future family members who had informed me of the negative test results, I sold all of my shares of Innate in order to avoid a major financial loss which I could not afford."

In doing so, Zarsky shielded himself from a $143,900 loss.

The following week, Innate announced the bad news – and the next day, The Buffalo News noticed that an unusually large number of Innate shares had been sold in America on June 23, when there was a hold on trading in Australia, where Chris Collins held his shares. Rep. Collins denied at the time that he or anyone close to him had dumped their shares based on inside information.

But federal authorities noticed the unusual trading pattern, too. And in April 2018, FBI agents paid separate visits to then-Rep. Collins, his son and Stephen Zarsky. According to new information in last week's court papers, all three men lied to the FBI about what happened the previous June.

The lies didn't work. Federal authorities indicted Collins, his son and Zarsky on Aug. 8, 2018.

That night, Chris Collins lied again.

"I acted properly and within the law at all times," the lawmaker told reporters.

The aftermath

Chris Collins insisted on his innocence for nearly 14 more months, narrowly winning re-election in the process. As he did so, the lives of others ensnared in his scheme began to crumble.

Eight days after the arrests, Cameron Collins' fiancée and her mother – who also dumped their Innate stock – settled a civil case with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Federal authorities never explained why they did not arrest Lauren and Dorothy Zarsky, but their ill-gotten gains paled in comparison to those of the men they love.

Lauren Zarsky agreed to pay back her illegal gains of $19,440, plus $839 in interest and a $19,440 fine. She also had to give up her certified public accounting license – which meant she had to leave her job.

"Her career will now be negatively, permanently affected, with zero chance that she will ever work at a reputable public accounting firm again," Cameron Collins told the judge in a letter.

Dorothy Zarsky gave up the $22,600 she saved by dumping her stock and paid $975 in interest and a $22,600 fine. As a result, "my future mother-in-law had to prematurely retire from her job of over 45 years," Cameron wrote.

The SEC went after Stephen Zarsky as well as Chris and Cameron Collins, and they settled the agency's lawsuit against him last month. Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky also had to surrender the money they saved by dumping their stock, but those close to Zarsky say that's just part of the punishment he's already suffered.

"His legal troubles have caused him to withdraw from our community, understandably, out of shame, born of regret," his longtime friend Ted Tolles wrote.

Meanwhile, Cameron's sister Caitlin Collins noticed that the arrest changed him.

"He has become mentally devastated to the point that I can feel it when I look at him," Caitlin Collins said.

All that collateral damage occurred behind the scenes during the months in which Chris Collins – the public face of the three inside traders – insisted he was innocent.

Then, last August, prosecutors changed their game plan. In order to thwart the congressman's legal strategy – which was to rely on an obscure constitutional provision that many indicted lawmakers have used to delay their trials – prosecutors proposed trying Cameron Collins and Zarsky separately, before Chris Collins.

The prospect of seeing the legal spotlight shine solely on his son prompted Chris Collins to accept a plea deal last Oct. 1, sources close to him said. Cameron Collins and Zarsky pleaded guilty as well.

Collins resigned from Congress the day he pleaded guilty, leaving New York's 27th Congressional District without representation. He and his family then fled to their waterfront property in Florida.

"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," wrote his wife, Mary Collins.

What survives

One thing, though, has managed to survive the crime that shattered so much in the lives of the Collins and Zarsky families.

Cameron Collins and Lauren Zarsky – who got engaged back in 2017 – still plan to get married. They hoped for a wedding in 2019, but delayed it pending the outcome of the criminal case.

"I'm terribly ashamed that I am the reason we've both had to put our future on hold," Cameron Collins wrote. "With such uncertainty for tomorrow, it was impossible for us to set a date and invite friends and family for what should be a celebration."

Lauren Zarsky told the judge she can't wait for that celebration.

"I so look forward to the day when I can finally call him my dearly beloved husband," she wrote. "I pray that day will be soon."

Whether it will be depends on U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick. He will sentence Chris Collins on Friday – and could decide to send him away for as much as four years and nine months. Broderick will sentence Cameron Collins and Zarsky the following week, and they could end up with anything from probation to a prison term of 46 months.

Eventually, though, Cameron and Lauren hope to start their own family – years later than planned.

"I hope that once this cloud has finally faded, we can piece our life back together," Cameron told the judge.

But even then, Chris Collins' son expects to bear a burden.

"My name will be forever tainted, and one shameful day in the future, I will have to explain all of this to my children," he wrote.

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