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Early Trump ally Chris Collins resigning ahead of plea hearing

New York Republican was reelected while fighting indictment on insider trading charges last year

New York Rep. Chris Collins is resigning ahead of a plea hearing Tuesday in his insider trading case. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Rep. Chris Collins is resigning ahead of a plea hearing Tuesday in his insider trading case. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Chris Collins is resigning ahead of a hearing related to insider trading charges.

The New York Republican on Monday submitted a resignation letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It will be effective when it is read on the House floor during a pro forma session Tuesday, her office confirmed.

Collins, who had previously entered a not guilty plea in his federal criminal fraud case, has a change of plea hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, raising the possibility he could agree to a deal offered by federal prosecutors. Collins is to appear before Judge Vernon Broderick of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York at 3 p.m.

The scheduling of the hearing was first reported by The Buffalo News. Collins faces eight counts of federal criminal charges involving conspiracy to commit securities fraud, securities fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and false statements. His trial is scheduled for Feb. 3.

Collins, along with his son, Cameron, and Stephen Zarsky, the father of Cameron’s future fiancée, are alleged by federal prosecutors to have engaged in an insider trading scheme involving an Australian biotechnology company — Innate Immunotherapeutics.

Collins, who was on the company’s board, allegedly provided nonpublic information to his son about confidential drug test results, paving the way for Cameron Collins and others to trade on that privileged information before the public could.

Half of Collins’ full-time staff has left the office since he was indicted in August 2018 on fraud charges. Seven of 14 full-time staffers are no longer working in the office, according to payroll records from May 2019, the most recent filing available at the Legislative Resource Center. Those who departed include his deputy chief of staff, Michael Kracker, communications director Sarah Minkel, and health policy adviser, Charlotte Pineda.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, would set the date of a special election if he were to call one before November 2020. For such an election, county party officials would select their respective party’s nominees.

Collins, one of President Donald Trump’s earliest backers in the House GOP conference, hails from the deep-red 27th District in Western New York. Trump won the seat by 25 points in 2016, but Collins won reelection by less than half a percentage point last fall against Democrat Nate McMurray, the supervisor of the town of Grand Island.

McMurray was already seeking a rematch against Collins and he said in a statement Monday that “the real victims of Collins’ crimes are the people of his district that he repeatedly lied to about his guilt.”

Collins’ exit could boost Republicans’ chances of holding onto the seat, given its partisan lean. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has changed its race rating from Leans Republican to Solid Republican.

One GOP strategist was confident the 27th District would remain in Republican hands, regardless of who the eventual nominee was. Several GOP candidates are likely interested in running for Collins’ seat, whether for a special election or for a full term in 2020.

A trio of Republicans had already jumped in the race to challenge Collins, who, until Monday, had been non-committal about running for reelection.

GOP State Sen. Chris Jacobs had the most cash on hand at June 30, the end of the second fundraising quarter, with nearly $748,000. He also loaned his campaign $325,000. Collins had claimed Jacobs was a “Never Trumper” for dodging questions in 2016 about his support for the president, but Politifact found that claim was false. GOP state Sen. Rob Ortt and Beth Parlato — an Afghanistan War veteran and attorney — were also in the race. 

And the Republican field could grow with Collins’ departure. Two sources said another potential candidate to watch is Erie County Comptroller and former local television news reporter Stefan Mychajliw, who has been making the rounds at GOP events. State Assemblyman Steve Hawley is another potential candidate.

“There are candidates who I think will be in before we get off the phone. Things are moving fast,” said GOP consultant Michael Caputo, who advised Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Caputo said Monday that he was launching an effort to draft Army veteran and local radio host David Bellavia for the seat, although Caputo would not rule out running himself if Bellavia chose not to run.

Bellavia, who was recently awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the Iraq War, is often mentioned as a potential candidate in the district, although it is not clear if he is interested in running. He ran for the seat in 2012, losing to Collins in the GOP primary — while winning a majority of the countries in the district. Bellavia discussed the 27th District race with Trump when he was awarded the Medal of Honor in June, according to a source with knowledge of their discussion. Bellavia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

McMurray may not be alone on the Democratic side in an open-seat race. Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner said in a phone interview that he was already hearing from Democrats who could be interested in running, but he noted that party is “laser-focused” on next month’s election for county executive.

“This district has always been a challenge for Democrats. … We’re looking for the strongest person who represents that community,” Zellner said.

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