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'I cannot face my constituents': Anguished Chris Collins faces 26 months in prison

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Former Rep. Chris Collins arrives at Federal District Court in Manhattan to be sentenced on charges of insider trading on Jan. 17, 2020. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

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NEW YORK – Chris Collins cried so hard that many of his words got lost in his anguish.

But that act of contrition only meant so much to U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick, who on Friday sentenced Collins to 26 months in prison for launching an insider trading scheme with a call to his son from a White House picnic in June 2017.

When Collins, 69, walked out of the courtroom, it signaled the stunning end of a public life that saw him become a wealthy entrepreneur, the Erie County executive and a member of Congress who was an early and close ally of Donald Trump.

On Friday, his power stripped and his career ended, Collins awaited his fate. And as emotionless as Collins was passionate, Broderick explained his sentence with boilerplate language like that used by judges in every court, for every offense.

"I do believe there is a need to both show respect for the law and to inflict just punishment," the judge said. "And I do agree there is a need for general deterrence."

With those thoughts in mind, Broderick also fined Collins $200,000. And once he leaves prison, the former four-term Republican lawmaker from Clarence will have to go through one year of supervised release.

That sentence came at the end of an unusually long three-hour sentencing hearing. Focused mostly on legal minutiae, the hearing's tone changed abruptly just before Broderick issued his sentence, when he asked Collins if he had anything to say.

Never known as an especially sensitive politician, Collins – looking tanned but visibly older than he did before his August 2018 arrest – stood and started sobbing.

"I violated my core values," Collins said, 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."

Collins then went on an extended description of what and whom he betrayed when he called his son Cameron with that stock tip.

An Eagle Scout and longtime scout leader, the elder Collins noted that he violated the first three words of the Boy Scout oath: "On my honor."

And as a result, "I will never be involved in scouting again, which is my life," he said. "That has rocked me to the core."

That's just the start. Not only did Collins share secret bad news with his son about Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech where the elder Collins sat on the board, he and his son also agreed that Cameron Collins should dump his Innate stock based on that information.

On top of that, Cameron Collins shared that inside information with his girlfriend, Lauren Zarsky, and her parents, Stephen Zarsky and Dorothy Zarsky.

And as a result, Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky also got arrested and, like the then-congressman, pleaded guilty in October. Lauren Zarsky and Dorothy Zarsky faced a civil action from the Securities and Exchange Commission and had to forgo their ill-gotten gains and pay penalties.

The elder Collins blamed himself for all of that and more.

"I've destroyed the reputation of my son," he said. "He's 27. He can't be involved in scouting. He'll probably never have a job."

Because of the scandal, Collins' wife, Mary, had her credit card canceled, and his daughter Caitlin's brokerage account got canceled, too, he said.

As for Collins, he had to resign from Congress when he pleaded guilty.

Noting that several of his former colleagues had texted him Friday morning, Collins said: "I let them down – and the president of the United States."

Collins was the first House member to endorse Trump for president, and one of the new Republican president's most televised defenders in 2017 and early 2018. Some in the White House thought he might be a Cabinet secretary someday, or even White House chief of staff.

But after Collins' August 2018 arrest, he fell into what he called "a dark place." He pulled out of it, he said, because of his daughter Caitlin.

"When I was in that dark hole, she said to me, 'Don't leave us, I want you in our kids' life,' " Collins said. "I climbed out of it because of her."

Broderick watched intently as Collins spoke, but he then made it clear that he was much more concerned with enforcing the law than he was with Collins' remorse over breaking it.

The judge seemed troubled by the Collins legal team's argument that the crime was an isolated act – just a stupid, panicked phone call made by an emotionally distraught father.

To the contrary, Broderick noted that after that phone call from the White House lawn, Collins spoke with his son several times over the next few days as Cameron Collins dumped his Innate shares.

Collins and his son could have stopped the illegal scheme at any time, the judge noted.

"There was time for folks to think about this and say: 'What are we doing?' " he said.

The inside stock tip that prompted those illegal trades resulted in one of the two charges to which Collins pleaded guilty: conspiracy to commit securities fraud. But then Collins committed another crime: lying to the FBI about Cameron's stock sales.

What's more, Broderick indicated that he agreed with prosecutors that Collins, his son and Lauren Zarsky together concocted a cover story that all three shared with the FBI.

Adding it all up, the judge said: "I don't view this as just a spur-of-the-moment loss of judgment."

Instead, Broderick characterized the illegal stock trades and the effort to cover them up as an inexplicable attempt to save money by a wealthy businessman-turned-politician who had no reason to break the law.

"Some might say it was a venal choice," the judge said.

And it was a choice with consequences far beyond Collins and his family. Collins' resignation left New York's 27th Congressional District without representation for months, the judge noted.

That seemed to be the only political observation the judge was willing to make. He said he read the dozens of letters he got from Collins' supporters and critics – but stripped out the emotions and politics, instead relying only on the facts as he crafted Collins' sentence.

And when one of Collins' lawyers spoke of living in partisan times, the judge said: "Not here."

After Broderick issued his sentence, Collins' lawyers said he would like to serve it at the Federal Prison Camp in Pensacola, Fla., which is the nearest such facility to Collins' home in Marco Island, Fla. Broderick said he would recommend that Collins be sent to Pensacola, but the final decision will be up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Despite his tears moments earlier, Collins appeared expressionless upon hearing the sentence, which drew raves from the prosecutors.

"Lawmakers bear the profound privilege and responsibility of writing and passing laws, but equally as important, the absolute obligation of following them," said Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York – and a Donald Trump appointee. "Collins’ hubris is a stark reminder that the people of New York can and should demand more from their elected officials, and that no matter how powerful, no lawmaker is above the law.”

Meanwhile, Nate McMurray – the Democrat who narrowly lost to Collins months after the lawmaker's arrest – said: "Years of lies by Collins and those who justified his crimes ends like this. Tears. An empty seat. It's a sad moment.

"No sentence can heal the damage caused. The sting will linger," McMurray added. "Remember this: who brought us here."

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