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Indicted House Republican pleads not guilty to felony charges

Two congressional Republicans are under criminal indictment. The latest legal developments in both of their cases are notable.
Image: Rep. Chris Collins
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (Photo By...

One of the oddities of the 2018 election cycle was that two incumbent congressmen ran for re-election while under felony indictment. One of the other oddities is that most of their constituents didn't seem to mind.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) won despite a fairly long list of charges, accused by prosecutors of misusing campaign contributions to pay for luxurious personal expenses. Last week, the Republican's lawyers argued that the case against him is built on evidence from his campaign-finance forms, and according to Hunter's legal team, those materials were filed as part of a legislative act and therefore should be immune from prosecutorial scrutiny.

I have a hunch this won't work out especially well for the GOP lawmaker, but time will tell. Hunter's trial is scheduled to begin in January. Several months later, he'll likely face a primary challenge from former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who retired from a nearby district, and who's apparently interested in a comeback.

And while there's no doubt that Hunter's scandal features all kinds of interesting drama, let's not forget the other indicted congressman, who was in court yesterday. Roll Call reported:

Rep. Chris Collins pleaded not guilty to a revised indictment on Thursday in New York, where he, his son Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky, the father of Cameron Collins' onetime fiancee, were initially indicted in August 2018 on insider trading charges and lying to the FBI.Prosecutors have dropped three of the original eight securities fraud charges against Collins and two against his son and Zarsky in order to speed up the pretrial process in time for the trial slated for Feb. 3, 2020.... The defense team for Collins, a longtime Republican from New York's 27th District, could delay that trial date for the congressman through a potentially lengthy pretrial appeals process.

For those who might need a refresher, the case against the New York Republican paints an unsettling picture.

Collins was a major investor in an Australian biomedical firm called Innate Immunotherapeutics -- he also sat on the company's board -- while allegedly pushing legislation intended to benefit the company.

The Daily Beast reported last year that Collins has sponsored "several bills" that would have benefited Innate Immunotherapeutics, while also "trying to make changes to a government program that would save the company millions of dollars if its drug is approved by the FDA."

That came on the heels of a New York Times report, based on findings from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which said that Collins "may have violated federal law by sharing nonpublic information about a company on whose board he served," and "may have broken House ethics rules by meeting with the National Institutes of Health and asking for help with the design of a clinical trial being set up by the company."

According to prosecutors, Innate Immunotherapeutics' CEO emailed the congressman a couple of summers ago, letting Collins know about an unsuccessful clinical trial, which would inevitably push the company's stock lower. Within six minutes, the lawmaker allegedly reached out to his son, who in turn contacted his fiancée's father, all of whom engaged in "timely trades" of the company's stock.

As NBC News reported a while back, "On June 26, news of the failed drug trial was made public and the stock took a nosedive. The defendants managed to avoid more than $768,000 in losses, prosecutors allege."

Collins tried to back out of his re-election campaign, then reversed course, then narrowly won anyway. The New York Republican, who represents the single "reddest" congressional district in the northeast, hasn't yet decided on whether to run again in 2020.

Postscript: In case anyone's forgotten, Donald Trump, a close Collins ally, complained publicly about Collins’ indictment, making the case that the Justice Department should go easy on allegedly corrupt members of Congress in order to help the Republican Party’s electoral interests. I continue to believe it was among the most indefensible moments of his presidency to date.