As the indictment tells it, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) was at the White House congressional picnic at 6:50 p.m. on June 27, 2017, when he received the email that presented him with a choice of adhering to the law or breaking it.
Collins had been the first sitting member of Congress to support Donald Trump’s candidacy. Neither that distinction nor Collins’ presence on the historic grounds where our new president lives and works seem to have offered him much inspiration to keep it legal and refrain from insider trading.
Ivanka Trump was there on the lawn and looked like innocence itself as she swung her daughter around and kissed her son on the top of his head. But there were other days when she and Donald Trump Jr. had been under criminal investigation for deliberately misleading investors in the Trump Soho Hotel. Prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had obtained emails that appeared to show the siblings were aware that what they were doing was illegal as well as dishonest. Their father’s longtime attorney Marc Kasowitz had then met with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who shut down the 2012 investigation despite being urged by his own people to indict the two young Trumps.
Also at the White House picnic was Wilbur Ross, who had been appointed the new secretary of commerce even though his firm had been fined $2.6 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2016. It found that he had charged investors some $10.4 million in unwarranted fees. Forbes magazine this week accused him of improperly pocketing $120 million, making him “one of the biggest grifters in American history.”
Not present at the picnic, but once a prominent participant in the effort to put Trump in the White House, was Paul Manafort, who for a time had been his campaign manager. Manafort was widely believed to have been involved in shady deals in Ukraine and elsewhere, routing money through offshore accounts. His deputy in the financial shenanigans, Rick Gates, had also become Trump’s deputy campaign manager.
Absent from White House functions in general, but known to have served as Trump’s fixer, was Michael Cohen, the lawyer. Cohen’s own business dealings involved Evgeny “Gene” Freidman, known as the Taxi King. Freidman had been arrested for criminal tax fraud the same month as the picnic. He would plead guilty and agree to cooperate against Cohen, who is said by prosecutors to have been involved in “many crimes.”
Cohen had been a teenage acquaintance of Felix Sater, who had done time for assault and pleaded guilty to massive securities fraud and was suspected of having left a gym bag containing two handguns, a shotgun, and papers relating to offshore bank accounts in a storage locker. Sater had gone on to figure in the Trump Soho project, which almost led to the two young Trumps being indicted.
President Trump had never been charged with a crime, but he had proven himself to be a devout believer in the power of lies. His moral compass seemed to be governed solely by what he viewed best for him at that moment. He was ready to malign a war hero or a Gold Star family, but has had nothing on Twitter or elsewhere about the chicanery of so many of his minions.
The guiding principle in the Trumpian cosmos is that what is good for Trump is what’s good period and the truth is what he says it is and anybody who disagrees is the real liar.
Perhaps Collins identified with that on some visceral level when he endorsed Trump.
The presence of our president certainly did not seem to inspire Collins to follow anything but his baser instincts after he received that email from the CEO of Innate Immunotherapeutics regarding the results of the clinical trial.
“I have bad news to report,” the CEO said.
After he emailed the CEO to express his surprise, Collins took exactly one minute to call his son, Cameron. The son did not pick up, but immediately called back—only for the father to miss the call and try again, only for the son to miss his call and call back. The two finally connected after six apparently frantic misses. They spoke for six minutes and eight seconds.
The name Innate Immunotherapeutics took on a sudden added significance. Only crookedness so deep as to be innate likely could have prompted Collins to go ahead and so quickly and recklessly pass on insider information even though the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) had interviewed him 17 days before regarding his dealings with the company.
The investigators had asked Collins about his facilitation of a meeting between the company and a National Institutes of Health official about the design of the clinical trial. The investigators had also inquired about company stock not available to the public that he had secured at a discount.
But the elder Collins apparently figured he could get away with tipping off his son. Cameron then headed with his fiancée, Lauren Zarsky, to her family’s home. Cameron suffered an un-Trumpian moment of decency by pledging to her parents that he would let them sell their stock before he began to dump his own, lest he depress the price. The fiancée’s mother, Dorothy Zarsky, allegedly got right on the phone with her broker and set to selling her holdings online. She would manage to avoid getting indicted, though her husband, Stephen Zarsky, would face charges because of his own efforts to cash out.
The next morning, Cameron Collins began to sell his stock in 58 increments. He divested himself of a total of 1,391,000 shares by the time the results of the clinical trial were made public. He thereby avoided a loss of some $570,900.
The older Collins did not unload his personal holdings. The subsequent indictment reports “As Christopher Collins well knew… he was virtually precluded from trading his own shares for practical and technical reasons.”
The indictment notes that the elder Collins was keenly aware that he was already under investigation by OCE. And, that concern aside, his shares were held in Australia, which had already instituted a trading halt at the company’s request after it announced it had the results of the trial, but before it made those results known. The son’s shares were held in the United States.
The charges against Chris Collins and Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky came as Manafort was on trial for various financial crimes, with Gates having pleaded guilty and serving as the star witness against him.
In the meantime, Michael Cohen awaits indictment, with the onetime Taxi King lined up to testify against him. Cohen is apparently hoping to head off heavy prison time by offering to assist special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of the Trump campaign’s dealings with the Russians. Cohen was that rare rat who began making recordings before he was charged with anything.
On Wednesday evening, Collins held a press conference in which he denied all wrongdoing. He said that he had sold none of his stock, though he failed to say that he had not done so because he could not. The man who had been Trump’s first supporter in Congress vowed to remain in office, and he followed the president’s example when fingering who was to blame for his predicament.
“Political opponents,” he said.
But, unless Chris Collins pleads guilty, the clinical trial will be followed by a criminal trial. And he who made that call from the White House grounds may find himself in a prison yard, where life is no picnic.