Chris Collins, Grifting It Old School

He's a throwback to a time when we expected our public servants to at least pretend to be ethical.
May 22, 2019
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Chris Collins with his wife, Mary, after being arraigned on insider trading charges. (Photo by John Normile/Getty Images)

With all the shameless and tedious new-school grift going around out in the open air on the right these days, one can start to feel a sort of perverse nostalgia for the corrupt schemers of yesteryear, the ones who at least had the grace to try to appear ethical outwardly as they used their power privately to fleece the public. So the saga of Representative Chris Collins of New York, currently on trial for insider trading, is almost a breath of fresh air.

Collins, who was first elected to Congress in 2012, had for years been heavily involved with a tiny Australian biopharmaceutical company called Innate Immunotherapeutics, serving on its board of directors and owning about 20 percent of the company. But in June 2017, he received unsettling news: Innate’s CEO emailed the board to inform them that the company’s would-be kingmaker, a potential multiple sclerosis treatment, had failed a clinical test. According to prosecutors, Collins didn’t miss a beat: He immediately called up his son, urging him and his future father-in-law, both of whom were also Innate investors, to get out quickly.

Later that week, the test results were made public, and Innate’s stock dropped more than 90 percent. But Collins and his family members had already yanked their investments, saving themselves more than $750,000—which presumably felt pretty good until the FBI came knocking in August 2018 and arrested all three men.

Collins has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting the charges in court. But the trial itself has yielded information that insider trading might not have been the full breadth of Collins’ bad behavior on behalf of Innate. His lawyers are currently fighting to keep jurors from seeing staff memos discussing legislation he pushed throughout his congressional career that would have benefitted pharma companies like Innate. The Buffalo News reported this week:

Attorney Jonathan B. New argued that the Constitution’s speech or debate clause—which aims to protect congressional business from the prying eyes of presidents or prosecutors—bars plenty of evidence from being used against Collins.

Among the items jurors should not be able to see, New said, was “some sort of talking points about legislation that might affect Innate.”

Yet [Jennifer] Brown, Collins’ congressional spokeswoman, appeared to deny the very existence of the memo that New cited in court.

“We are unaware of any so-called ‘talking points about legislation that might affect Innate’ other than responses to baseless accusations in the media,” she said.

The behavior Collins is accused of is, of course, deplorable. Yet there’s something counterintuitively reassuring about the sort of criminality that hides itself behind a guise of respectability and public service: It comes to be in societies only where respectable public service is considered praiseworthy. Such episodes speak better of the system they occur in than schemes that rely on public disillusionment and the jaded expectation that everything is some kind of scam.

Yet, alas, even here we learn that there can be no return to the past. Collins may be a crook of the old school, but the way he has punched back has been decidedly 2019. That means pushing down the Trump pedal as far as it’ll go.

Last Friday, New York state Senator Chris Jacobs announced he would challenge Collins in the 2020 Republican primary. His pitch is straightforward, the usual fare under such circumstances: Collins isn’t getting things done for his district—he has been stripped of his committee assignments pending the conclusion of his trial—and so it’s time for a change.

“I think it’s important to have someone who can fully serve as a congressman,” Jacobs said. “Unfortunately, under the circumstances, Congressman Collins does not have that ability at this time.”

Collins hit back at once. “One thing about Chris Jacobs, he does not represent the values of the 27th district,” he told local station WKBW. “We have a very conservative Trump district, he’s a Never Trumper. … The residents and constituents of NY-27 are not going to be tricked into thinking he’s really a Republican.” He doubled down on this attack in a fundraising email: “We may not know who Jacobs voted for in 2016, but we do know he refused to support President Trump in 2016 when he was running for office in a Democrat district.”

It isn’t every day you see a congressman accused of felonious corruption try to make his campaign about “values.” But Collins is plainly betting that his voters’ “values” have in fact been reduced to a single value: Does their congressman have Trump’s back, or doesn’t he? Collins may be using his office to line his own pockets, sure—but do you think his constituents are going to trade him in for a NeverTrumper? Don’t make him laugh.

Never mind that Jacobs does not meet any conventional definition of the term. “I support the president,” he said last week, “and the ‘Make America Great Again’ policies he advocates.” This week, he added that he had voted for Trump. But he did deflect questions about Trump during his 2016 campaign, telling interviewers he was “100 percent focused on my campaign.” Meanwhile, Collins supported Trump rabidly, becoming the first congressman to endorse his campaign all the way back in February 2016. Donning the red hat covers a multitude of sins, apparently.

One might well wonder why Trump himself doesn’t shy away from such embarrassing associations. After all, it was during a White House picnic that Collins made his allegedly felonious call to his son—the White House press caught the thing on camera! But for Trump the bad guy isn’t Collins for allegedly committing crimes, but the attorney general for not sweeping those crimes under the rug for the sake of the midterms.

Brazening it out shamelessly because you know the big guy’s got your back: Collins knows the MAGA zeitgeist well. There’s not a thing a Republican can do that Trump won’t forgive so long as they’re on the team.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.