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Critics outraged, Republicans silent as Trump pardons ex-Rep. Chris Collins

Critics outraged, Republicans silent as Trump pardons ex-Rep. Chris Collins

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Chris Collins

Former Rep. Chris Collins arrives at Federal District Court in Manhattan to be sentenced on charges in January. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

WASHINGTON – President Trump on Tuesday pardoned former Rep. Chris Collins, who was imprisoned in October after pleading guilty to felony insider trading charges.

The early evening pardon prompted outrage from Collins' critics and dead silence from Trump's fellow Republicans.

"Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to Chris Collins, at the request of many Members of Congress," the White House said in a statement that did not offer any further explanation of Trump's action.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons on Wednesday listed Collins, 70, as having been released Tuesday.

Collins in 2016 was the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump for president. Prior to his indictment and conviction, the Clarence Republican frequently appeared on national news outlets to express support for the president.

The Collins pardon was one of 15 the president issued. Two other congressmen-turned-felons, Duncan Hunter of California and Steve Stockman of Texas, were also pardoned. Hunter and Stockman, like Collins, are Republicans, and Hunter was the second member of Congress to endorse Trump in 2016.

Every president has broad power under the Constitution to grant pardons. Pardons do not absolve federal felons of their crimes; they just remove every form of federal punishment for the offense.

Pardoned federal prisoners are usually released almost immediately after the president acts. That means Collins, a millionaire businessman who started serving his sentence in October at a federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., could be home at his waterfront residence in Marco Island, Fla., for Christmas.

Collins pleaded guilty in October 2019 to charges related to a stock tip he provided to his son. A federal judge sentenced Collins in January to 26 months in prison.

Neither Rep. Chris Jacobs, the Orchard Park Republican elected to Collins' former seat in June, nor Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, returned calls late Tuesday seeking comment about the Collins pardon.

But Democrats, congressional ethics experts and experts in insider trading reacted with fury to the news.

"It's Banana Republic stuff," said Nate McMurray, the former Grand Island supervisor who narrowly lost to Collins three months after the Republican lawmaker's August 2018 indictment. "This is the kind of stuff we see in developing nations, not the United States. And what's scary is that some people will cheer."

Craig Holman, ethics lobbyist at Public Citizen, filed one of the first ethics complaints about Collins' stock-trading habits in 2017. He indicated that Trump's pardons made a mockery of his 2016 campaign promise to "drain the swamp."

"This shows that things like congressional insider trading – or, with Duncan Hunter, using campaign funds to pay for your girlfriends – is all perfectly fine to Donald Trump," Holman said. "This shows that what Trump is about is the swamp."

And Anthony Ogorek, a Williamsville financial planner, was in June 2017 among the first to raise suspicions about the pattern of apparent insider trading involving an Australian biotech where Collins sat on the board. 

Reacting to Trump's pardon, Ogorek said via text message: "Who said no man is above the law?"

Trump's pardon of Collins came only 11 months after Collins stood weeping in a New York courtroom as he pleaded for leniency from a federal judge.

"I violated my core values," Collins said then, his voice cracking. "I am standing here, probably the last time I will do anything in public. I left Buffalo. I cannot face my constituents. People feel sorry for me. They shouldn't. I did what I did."

What Collins did took place at a White House picnic in June 2017. There, he received an email from the chairman of Innate Immunotherapeutics, that Australian biotech, bearing devastating news. The biotech company's only product, an experimental muscular sclerosis drug, failed in clinical trials.

Collins – then the company's largest shareholder – immediately started dialing his son Cameron. Collins acknowledged in court that he called his son to advise him to dump his Innate shares, which Cameron Collins started doing the next day.

Cameron Collins then told his then-fiancee, Lauren Zarsky, and her parents, Stephen and Dorothy Zarsky, about the news. They started selling their shares, too.

Days later, The Buffalo News reported that an unusual number of shares of Innate stock had been traded late that previous week, leading to suspicions of insider trading among investment experts both in Buffalo and Australia.

Chris Collins was indicted 13 months later. He pleaded guilty and resigned from Congress in October 2019. Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky also pleaded guilty, but were sentenced to short terms of home confinement and probation. Lauren and Dorothy Zarsky settled civil charges filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Given that history, Cecily Molak of Mendon, in Monroe County – the first citizen to file an ethics complaint against Collins in 2017 – said she was "extremely disappointed" with the pardon.

"Insider trading convictions at least can give a message to other people who are doing the same thing, or thinking about doing the same thing," said Molak, a retired attorney. "And the message that this pardon gives is: Don't worry about it – if in fact you get caught, hold out as long as you can because I will take care of you, at least in this administration. And I think that really is just a travesty."

Collins could be released from federal prison immediately, as soon as the Bureau of Prisons processes his paperwork, according to two Buffalo attorneys.

“There’s really no reason they have to hold him,” Paul Cambria said late Tuesday.

“I have little doubt he will be home for Christmas,” said Barry Covert.

News Staff Reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.

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