Well, New York, looks like we might have yet another high-profile politician enriching himself and being paid to put the interests of his donors ahead of the will of the people that put him in power. This time it’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-Clarence).
On Oct. 12, the federal Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) concluded Collins may have used “inside information” in an attempt to help a random Australian company and enrich himself in the process.
The agency had been looking into Collins and his dealings with Innate Immunotherapeutics, a Sydney, Australia-based biotech company. Of course, a spokesperson for the congressman denies his boss did anything illegal.
The Buffalo News reported officials with the OCE had “a substantial reason to believe” that Collins had not only been involved with insider trading, he also allegedly broke House ethics rules by persuading officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to meet with someone from the company.
Specifically, after reviewing Collins’s emails from 2015 and 2016, the OCE believes he partook in a form of insider trading called “tipping,” or using information he had as a congressman to convince investors to buy into Innate – like the results of clinical trials not yet made public, and Innate’s plans to work with a large pharmaceutical company to make a multiple sclerosis drug.
The OCE also found one of Collins’s staffers hooked him up with a meeting at NIH where he asked if the federal agency could help the company with some of its work. All of this matters because Collins happens to be Innate’s largest shareholder. This would effectively amount to Collins asking the government to help his business make money.
Based on information provided by colleagues including New York Rep. Louise Slaughter (D Fairport), Collins is also thought to have introduced an amendment designed to help Innate which became law last year.
That legislation was the 21st Century Cures Act,which according to USA Today provided $6.3 billion in funding for research to tackle problems like cancer and the opioid epidemic, but would also direct money toward companies like Innate.
Before the rest of us knew who what Innate even was, it’s worth noting the first group of people to raise concerns about the congressman’s business ethics were – of all people – members of the Heritage Action, the political arm of the deeply conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
In 2014, one of Collins’ former staffers, Christine Sisto, went to the National Review to inform the conservative media outlet that her ex-boss was circulating a letter in an attempt to get his fellow representatives to vote in favor of reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank (EXIM).
More about what EXIM does can be found here, but the short version is the agency approves taxpayer-funded loans to companies. Three years ago, EXIM lost the ability to do a lot of that and Collins was trying to convince his colleagues to reverse course.
Why? Turns out Collins is the chairman and an investor with the Audubon Machinery Corp., a company in his district that makes onsite oxygen generators and, according to the company’s website, has received money from EXIM in the past.
Collins dismissed the concerns at the time, saying allegations of cronyism coming from the think tank, “… shows how out of touch Heritage is with how jobs are created in this country.”
As pointed out by the Buffalo News, by serving as a chairman and the largest shareholder of Innate, Collins is the ONLY member of Congress who sits on the board of a company with publicly-traded stock, meaning almost ANYTHING done to benefit his companies will very likely be of financial benefit to Collins and his buddies.
The proof isn’t buried in the piles of information compiled by the ethics office, either. Remember: this is all legal, so the evidence is in public documents and, in some cases, Collins’ voting record, and from his own mouth.
Like in January, when his constituents learned their congressman had bragged about “how many millionaires I’ve made in Buffalo the past few months.” Collins was likely referring to how in 2016, Innate offered private placements – or sales to private entities – of its stock.
A handful of those people happened to be executives at three Buffalo-based companies: Reid Petroleum, Eastman Machine, and Gibraltar Steel. Buyers also included the guy who used to hold Collins’ seat, former Republican Rep. Bill Paxon from Amherst, NY; Lindy Roach, former coach of the Buffalo Sabres, and even FORMER Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who was recently canned for blowing taxpayer money to jetset around the country.
Turns out the people who took advantage of the stock offer also happened to give a total of $105,000 to Collins’ political committees over the years. Most of Collins’ campaign contributions typically come from big pharma and the healthcare industry, so some may not be shocked to find Collins likes to vote for bills that happen to benefit the industry that made him rich.
An example would be when he voted in favor of the 2015 Protect Medical Innovation Act that would repeal the 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices like the onsite oxygen generators Audubon makes, or the 2015 American Research and Competitiveness Act that would create a permanent a tax credit for private research and development – the type of work Innate does.
Now, is any of this against the law? Nope. Is it grimy as hell? Some might think so, yeah.
Americans have made it crystal clear that they would love nothing more to get the money out of politics. Should anyone elected to Congress in the future feel the same, it may be helpful to cite the curious case of Chris Collins as an example of what specific problems and conflicts of interest need to be addressed.
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