"Society, as a whole, will gain no benefit from incarcerating" Chris Collins.
At least that’s what his lawyers argue in court papers filed ahead of Friday’s sentencing.
But they are as wrong about that as the congressman-turned-felon was in passing inside information to help those close to him avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock losses.
Much of the debate over how much of the maximum 57 months, if any, Collins should serve has revolved around the affected individuals – the husband, father and grandfather who supposedly led "an otherwise commendable life"; the other stockholders left holding the bag for his "moment of weakness;" the constituents he repeatedly lied to; and the relatives and future in-laws he dragged down with him.
But even the innocents on that list are merely the lesser victims.
His lawyers no doubt missed the irony when invoking a new law that calls for home confinement for older felons who pose no threat to society. Though Collins isn’t likely to mug anyone, the threat to society posed by his approach to government will linger long after the cell bars clink shut behind him.
In disgrace and facing prison pinstripes – perhaps even more than as a congressman – Collins makes the very case that he, Donald Trump and the rest of that cabal have pressed for years to undermine faith in the American experiment in self-rule: that government cannot be trusted.
He has made himself Exhibit A in that argument: "Of course, government can’t be trusted – just look at Chris Collins."
In a diabolically insidious way he never intended, his very crime is now unconscious reinforcement for all of the mindless minions who attend Trump rallies. They will never amend their chant from "Lock her up!" to "Lock him up!" and they’ll continue to have less confidence in their own officials than in Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But the reasons not to trust government have nothing to do with a "deep state" composed of conscientious bureaucrats trying to save the Constitution from the wrecking ball of ignorance. They have nothing to do with federal employees trying to save public lands and waters for the next generation rather than let them be trashed to enrich big donors. And they have nothing to do with military officials trying their best to slow-walk decisions that could put at risk young men and women who don’t claim bone spurs.
Rather, if you don’t trust government, it should be because of people like Trump and like Collins, the first House member to endorse the emoluments-challenged president.
For that reason above all others, Collins deserves the maximum sentence. He is not like any other 69-year-old, nonviolent first offender because his crime strikes at the very foundations of a government now teetering between the Founders’ ideals and a graft-infected plutocracy fueled by public cynicism.
We seek the maximum punishment for killing a police officer not because that officer’s life is worth more than anyone else’s, but because that crime strikes at one of the pillars of an orderly society. We enact special sanctions for hate crimes because they do more than target an individual, they are an attack on the very idea of equality.
Similarly, when a public official like Collins abuses the trust voters placed in him, it is more than just a white-collar crook cheating or stealing from other investors who get left holding the bag. It is an attack on our democratic values and it undermines the public trust necessary to sustain our form of government.
That’s why it is disappointing that so many Western New York "leaders" would set aside community norms and go to bat for someone like Collins by writing letters seeking leniency. I can understand the urge, on a personal level, to respond when someone asks a favor in their time of need. But Collins, whose governing philosophy as both Erie County executive and as congressman showed no mercy to those who need help most, does not deserve mercy now as he ponders the prospect of a few years in a country club prison.
The backers of politicians like him wear as a badge of honor their distrust of government.
Collins has given them one more reason not to trust it.
For that alone, he deserves the maximum.