Congressman Wants Private Emails Off Limits at Fraud Trial

U.S. Rep. Christopher Collins, R-N.Y., leaves court on Aug. 8, 2018, after he was been indicted on charges that he used inside information about a biotechnology company to make illicit stock trades. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

MANHATTAN (CN) – The first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump found himself immersed in his own private-email controversy Friday as he prepares for an election-year trial on insider-trading charges.

Long before his indictment on securities fraud charges, Rep. Chris Collins of New York railed against Hillary Clinton’s private emails on national television.

“Well, on the character issue, two-thirds of the American public know that Hillary Clinton’s a liar,” the Republican told CNN in October 2016. “She can’t be trusted, and now the two faces of Hillary Clinton are coming out through WikiLeaks.”

Collins previously scolded Clinton for her “extremely poor judgment” after former FBI director James Comey cleared the former secretary of state of criminal liability months earlier.

In a Friday afternoon reversal of fortune, Collins fought to suppress his own private emails in his effort to avoid a conviction. Prosecutors claim Collins tipped friends and family about failed clinical testing of a multiple sclerosis drug developed by Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotechnology company for which he was a board member.

To defend his client against the charges, Collins’ attorney Jonathan New asked a federal judge to declare the congressman’s private emails off-limits under the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“This privilege is there to protect members of Congress from the executive’s overreach,” the BakerHostetler attorney said, adding the House of Representative has no formal guidance about members’ use of private emails for official business.

The lack of congressional rules appeared to leave presiding U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick gobsmacked.

“They might want to consider adopting them,” Broderick said, to laughter in the court. “I’m just surprised.”

“I also find it sort of surprising,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Hartman agreed.

On top of preserving email records, Broderick added: “I’m talking about security.”

Despite having spoken passionately about the security risks of using private email servers, Collins now finds himself protecting the privacy of his own. The congressman’s legal team offered an expansive view of their client’s privilege as a legislator.

In October 2017, the Office of Congressional Ethics found “substantial reason to believe” Collins shared nonpublic information about Innate stock, in violation of House rules, standards of conduct and federal law.

Attorneys for Collins want to bar prosecutors from citing any part of that investigation as a privileged “legislative act.”

Broderick floated the idea of barring mention that Collins is a congressman at his upcoming trial, but ultimately did not issue any rulings on the defense motions from the bench.

Since his indictment, Collins has survived scandal to hang on to political life. Voters from his 27th Congressional District in upstate New York narrowly re-elected him this past November despite the criminal charges filed months earlier. He has pleaded not guilty, along with his son Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky, the father of the son’s fiancée at the time of the indictment.

Trial is scheduled to begin in February 2020.

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