Ex-Congressman Christopher Collins, 69, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick in Manhattan after the Republican pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to commit securities fraud and lying to law enforcement officials.
Collins broke down and apologized to his family and his former constituents and colleagues. “I stand here today as a disgraced former member of Congress,” he said. “My life has been shattered.” The sentence came even after Collins' lawyers argued he was sorry and should face no prison time in the insider trading case.
Prosecutors, however, argued he should go to prison for nearly five years. They said Collins and his son, Cameron, were worth a total of $35 million when they conspired to sell shares in a pharmaceutical company before devastating news was made public.
The trading, prosecutors said, enabled Cameron Collins and friends to dodge $800,000 in losses. Collins' attorneys requested leniency, citing his contrition, advanced age, charitable works and a low chance that he would commit any more crimes.
“This is a sad and tragic day for Chris and his family,” defense attorney Jonathan Barr said. “He stands before you humbled, penitent and remorseful.” Collins had been a vocal Trump supporter, becoming the first member of Congress to endorse him as a presidential candidate. He also called for an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible campaign collusion and blamed former President Barack Obama’s administration for failing to push back on Russia.
He vehemently denied wrongdoing when he was charged in 2018, with a spokeswoman calling a House Ethics Committee inquiry into Collins a “ partisan witch hunt.” When he spoke Friday, he fought back tears and displayed the Boy Scout's three-fingered sign, breaking down several times as he spoke about the scout code he violated, including a vow to be trustworthy, and his family.
“I violated my core values and there is no excuse, none whatsoever,” he said, looking at members of the media seated in the jury box during much of his remarks. “My life has been shattered. My reputation has been shattered. Worst, my family has been shattered,” he said.
He added that he was in a “dark, dark place,” wondering how to go on when his daughter pleaded with him to recover. “I climbed out of the hole because of her,” he said as his wife and daughter, who fought tears of their own.
Collins had represented western New York since his election to the state's 27th Congressional District in 2012. He resigned when he decided to plead guilty to a single conspiracy count, leaving the district's constituents without representation in Congress.
“Lawmakers bear the profound privilege and responsibility of writing and passing laws, but equally as important, the absolute obligation of following them,” Geoffrey Berman, the Manhattan U.S. attorney, said in a statement. “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.”
Prosecutors faulted Collins for campaigning for a reelection race he won after his arrest and then continuing to serve. They said Collins learned that Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd., whose board he sat on, had failed a drug trial when he received a telephone call while he attended the annual Congressional Picnic at the White House on June 22, 2017.
Knowing that Innate's stock would plunge when news got out, Collins “from the White House lawn” tried to reach his son to tip him off so he could sell his shares, prosecutors said. Prosecutors said he then conspired with family members to claim Cameron Collins and friends sold shares because they were spooked by a temporary halt in the trading of the stock rather than because they knew the stock price would fall 92% for the company headquartered in Sydney, Australia, with offices in Auckland, New Zealand.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Max Nicholas disputed the defense claim that the crime was the result of a tragic and emotional moment when Collins wasn’t thinking straight after learning the drug trial failed. The prosecutor noted there was a 10-month gap between his first crime when he called his son and the second when he lied to the FBI, which described as Collins “doubling down.”
"We do not agree this crime was emotional,” Nicholas said. Broderick called it baffling that Collins would exercise such poor judgment when he and his son had the financial means to deal with any loss.
“I have a difficult time reconciling that,” the judge said. "It was a stupid, impulsive action that doesn’t make sense,” Barr, Collins' defense attorney, responded. “He really thought this company had something that was going to be a magic bullet for somebody with a really serious illness.”
During his remarks, Collins said he felt like he was reading his obituary as he was reading the letters from family and friends, which included one from former House Speaker John Boehner. He said some current members of Congress sent him texts Friday morning.
“It may sound like it, but this is not your obituary,” the judge told him after announcing his sentence, due to begin March 17. His lawyers asked him to be assigned to a prison in Florida near where he now lives.
“You have your future ahead of you. Make some good come out of this bad situation,” Broderick said.