Can this ex-congressman show Trump the path to life after indictment?

Convicted for insider trading, Chris Collins got a pardon from Trump and found warm refuge in Florida — where crime is hardly a political liability, and comebacks are always possible.

Former congressman Chris Collins and his wife, Mary Sue, at their home on Marco Island in Florida. (Photographs by Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)
24 min

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. — Marco Midnight is approaching and the country-club piano man is playing an Abba song. Again.

At the corner table, across an expanse of pleasantly sedating swirls of seafoam-green carpeting, the talk is of that mansion down the road, someone else’s trophy wife and, oh, the usual financial fraud — on a multimillionaire’s scale. Diamond rings sparkle at tables around the room. Skilled surgeons have provided all the tweaks and enhancements.

It is here — in a place so aptly named Hideaway Beach, on an island where midnight means 8 o’clock, in a state that embraces those with complicated pasts — that Chris Collins, a New York congressman turned defiant ex-con, retreated to a princely Spanish Revival waterfront estate to sort out his life and plan a comeback.

Collins, he of the insider trading scandal and chagrined 2019 resignation from Congress, became a national figure because of Donald Trump. In happier days, Collins was the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He found the cable news exposure he’d desired by backing Trump in almost all things.

Trump’s thank-you gift to Collins would come four years later, a few days before Christmas 2020: a pardon for the former congressman, who’d by then become an unhappy resident of a federal prison camp on the Florida Panhandle. Collins got to walk out of a minimum-security lockup where he’d spent time (and was doomed to molder at least another 14 months even with time off for good behavior) among convicted drug dealers, hurricane-repair scammers and a guy who once posed as the Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar to dupe the Russians into selling him cut-rate, Soviet-era military helicopters and parts.

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Collins was one of 238 people Trump freed or formally forgave for crimes using his clemency power. But among them, he is the most uniquely paired with the former president, a mirror-like figure whose trajectory offers a road map for Trump, previewing one possible version of the former president’s future — and showing him the way.

“He experienced the highs of Trump before Trump and the lows of Trump before Trump,” says Chris Grant, an adviser to Republican Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential campaign, which was suspended this week. “The ironic thing is I think Trump will come back and I think Chris will come back.”

As Collins lays the groundwork for a campaign to return to Congress, perhaps as soon as this year, he foreshadows a world in which federal convictions and prison stints might not be career-killers or even pesky annoyances. Instead, they’re badges of pride.

The Collins route to political redemption:

  • First stop: Get indicted while running for reelection, as Collins did in 2018 — just as Trump was last year after launching his current presidential campaign.
  • Second stop: Win an election, as Collins did in 2018 while under indictment — and Trump is trying to do now while wrestling four indictments.
  • Third stop: Go to prison — a fate that could await Trump in any of four criminal cases in Washington, New York and Florida.
  • Fourth stop: Get out of prison and run for office again proclaiming persecution by the feds!

“They came after me like they came after Trump,” Collins says one recent afternoon at home in Marco. He is a picture of restless energy, even here in his retirement-haven, golden-years shorts and golf shirt. He is a lean 73-year-old with angular features, a Floridian perma-tan and short-cropped hair several shades darker than it was when he was tangling with federal prosecutors. (“I use that Touch of Gray,” he confides.)

Collins and Trump have similar aesthetic leanings: In Collins’s 5,000-plus-square-foot, $6 million pad, the living room is thick with gilt furniture, statuary, crystal and onyx. Light streams in from five massive floor-to-ceiling arched windows steps from Tigertail Lagoon. Fox News blares all day, every day, from a wall-mounted television in the next room. On the sand below, a gopher tortoise nicknamed Olivia meanders among the dunes. Collins shares the showpiece home with his wife of more than three decades, Mary Sue, a slender and effervescent 63-year-old ballroom-dancing champion with an electric smile, expensively coifed blond hair and an affinity for leopard-print skirts and designer shoes. (“I never met a designer I didn’t like; I like them all.”)

“What Trump’s going through has changed the perception of me,” Collins says, pausing a beat. “In a very positive way.”

Mary Sue interjects, leaning into the conversation from the kitchen pass-through: “You’re a regular guy now.”

In January 2017, Chris Collins’s status as Special Person of Trumpworld was affirmed when he was invited to the new president’s Inauguration Day luncheon. Trump, he says, came up to his table, tapped him on the shoulder, took one look at Mary Sue and declared, “She’s beautiful!” Mary Sue posed with the newly minted president for a picture — surely one of the first brag-wall shots he’d taken as commander in chief.

Not so long before, Collins’s staff had struggled to meet a goal he’d set for them of getting him on national TV twice in a single year. Producers had been saying, “Your boss is a nobody.”

Collins became a somebody with a call to the Trump campaign staffers in late February 2016 to give them a heads-up that he was about to issue an endorsement. He asked whether they wanted him to do it quietly, given Trump’s drain-the-swamp campaign vibe. They wanted him to go big.

Suddenly, his appearances swelled into the hundreds. This he knows — precisely. He keeps a log.

“You don’t know how much he loves to count,” Mary Sue says. “We’re driving around and he’s counting, I don’t know, license plates from other states. He’ll say, ‘You didn’t notice that?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I was listening to “Here Comes the Sun.”’”

Well, Collins jabs back, “You don’t even know what your Mastercard bill is.”

“Why would I want to know?” Mary Sue parries.

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Collins had met Trump only fleetingly, in 2014, when Trump briefly toyed with the idea of running for governor of New York and Collins was serving his first term in Congress. Collins remembers Trump saying he wanted the gubernatorial race “locked in” without a primary opponent.

Collins felt the need to explain New York politics, telling Trump — then best known as a self-promoting developer and host of “The Apprentice” on NBC — that he couldn’t dictate who ran in a primary. Trump eventually decided against running.

Collins, too, had once teased a gubernatorial run.

“Remember that?” he says to Mary Sue.

“Oh, yeah,” she says with an exaggerated eye roll. She sticks out her tongue as if she’s just tasted something gross.

Collins was set on a path to Congress by Dennis Vacco, who had once been New York’s top law enforcement official, the state attorney general. Collins had lost a congressional bid about a decade before, but when Vacco spotted him at a Buffalo Sabres game, he decided to convince him to run for Erie County executive.

“That’s what relaunched his political career,” Vacco says in an interview.

Vacco was pleased when Collins won, crediting him with straightening out the county’s dismal finances. In office, Collins imposed a business-improvement model called Lean Six Sigma, which has a devout following among the “run government like a business” crowd and awards martial-arts-inspired certifications to employees who complete training.

The man who loves to count delighted in tallying up the star pupils: 12 black belts, more than 100 green belts and several hundred yellow belts. But the program also had the unpopular effect of leading to cuts in the county’s workforce through layoffs. The job losses, combined with Collins’s “brusque manner” and “CEO style,” turned people off, Vacco says. Collins lost his 2011 reelection bid.

The next year, he parlayed a new congressional map that benefited Republicans in his area into a victory over an incumbent congresswoman, Kathy Hochul, now New York’s governor and a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Collins and Trump, for all their differences in political experience at the time, share a penchant for outrageous remarks: Collins once compared a Jewish New York politico to Hitler and the anti-Christ (a bad attempt at a joke, he says) and was overheard saying to a female friend at a crowded political gathering that she should give a “lap dance” to someone to get a seat. (He says they were both joking about it.)

Unlike Trump, though, Collins wasn’t born into a great American fortune. His father was an upper-middle-class electrical company and railroad executive who ping-ponged his seven children and stay-at-home wife from Upstate New York to Connecticut to North Carolina as he rose up the corporate ladder. When Collins was a senior in high school, his father announced that they’d be moving again — this time to New Hampshire. Collins refused to go, staying behind in Hendersonville, N.C., in a rented apartment he called “Party Central.” When he wanted to skip class, he’d write a note to the school excusing himself, he says.

Collins earned a mechanical engineering degree at North Carolina State University, but his greatest talent might have been the science of persuasion. He paid tuition by selling shoes, boasting that he amassed more commissions working part time than the full-time sales staff. After graduating, he made his mark in the business world as a “sales engineer” at Westinghouse.

Ironically — or perhaps not — it was an inside tip of sorts that launched him as an entrepreneur. In the early 1980s, his mentor at Westinghouse told him on the q.t. that Westinghouse was going to sell off one of its divisions, a Buffalo-based unit that made gears for industrial motors, according to an unpublished 402-page memoir he shared with The Washington Post, details from which he confirmed in interviews. With some help from a country-club buddy who introduced him to investors, he scooped it up.

Over the next four decades, Collins became a venture capitalist who hunted for wounded companies, swooping in to buy struggling firms that he’d either fold into existing businesses or reconfigure and sell. He’s owned or held major stakes in at least 22 companies by his count — a mix that has included biotech firms, an industrial gear company and a ceramics manufacturer.

Though Collins has retained some lowbrow tastes — cheap cigars and Costco wine — he at one point ranked as the fifth-wealthiest member of Congress, with a net worth between $80 million and $228 million, according to government transparency group OpenSecrets.

In 2017, Collins stood to make a bundle. He’d previously made a multimillion-dollar investment in an Australian biotech company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, and joined its board.

“There was no investment I was more proud of. I talked about it all the time,” Collins says. “It was going to be my legacy in life.” Among those who’d invested in the company, which was developing a potentially blockbuster multiple-sclerosis drug, were at least six members of Congress.

Another person caught up in Collins’s enthusiasm was Chris Graham, a partner in a large Buffalo industrial equipment-servicing company of which Collins still owns nearly 50 percent. Collins persuaded Graham to buy shares during an unexpected New Year’s Eve phone call. Graham calls Collins “Mini-Me Trump.” He means it as a compliment.

In June 2017, Collins was traipsing the White House grounds at Trump’s annual picnic for members of Congress and their guests as he waited for the crucial results of the trial to determine whether Innate’s drug actually worked. He was shocked to get an email saying it had failed.

Collins immediately called his 24-year-old son, Cameron, who also owned a large chunk of stock in the company. Collins claims he has no memory of what was said on the call, suggesting he was suffering “dissociative amnesia” because of the shock.

The next day, his son started dumping Innate shares before the public announcement of the test results, staving off more than $570,000 in losses when the stock predictably tanked, according to federal prosecutors.

Collins says he didn’t know his son could even sell stock; the company’s shares were listed on the Australian stock market, where trading had been halted. But his son had transferred his shares to the United States over-the-counter securities market, which hadn’t halted trading.

Months would pass before there was a knock at the door of Collins’s Washington apartment. It was the FBI, which was also knocking on the doors of many others connected to Collins. Collins says that, in a moment of rage, he told the agents that he hadn’t contacted anyone about the test results. They had him.

Mary Sue, who was at their home in the Buffalo area at the time, says she was never informed she was a target of the investigation and she was not charged in the case. When the FBI contacted her, she didn’t say a word.

“I spent my whole month,” she says, “wondering why everyone else did.”

Collins was indicted in August 2018 for securities fraud and making false statements to law enforcement agents. It was a particularly inconvenient moment: He was on the ballot in November seeking his fourth term in Congress.

The timing of the indictment was intentional, Geoffrey Berman, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote in his book, “Holding the Line: Inside the Nation’s Preeminent US Attorney’s Office and Its Battle with the Trump Justice Department.” In the book, Berman says Collins’s crime amounted to cheating regular investors as if they were “dupes at a rigged card game,” and he thought voters deserved to know about it.

Collins wasn’t just saddled with a federal indictment; he was also the subject of a congressional ethics investigation related to stock transactions, which — in fluent Trumpese — he now calls a “witch hunt.” (The investigation was later closed after Collins resigned.)

During the campaign, Collins attacked his Democratic opponent, Nate McMurray, with a factually challenged ad. Collins’s campaign team ran chyrons beneath video of McMurray speaking Korean with a false translation of what he was saying.

“Totally made up,” Collins says one afternoon over lunch in Marco. “That’s how politics can be when you take the gloves off.”

Critics called him xenophobic, he says matter-of-factly. Again, he didn’t care: “Nice people finish last.”

“I thought nobody would vote for a criminal,” says Chris Bennem, a volunteer for McMurray’s campaign who was floored by what he considered Collins’s arrogance. (“It’s the perverse arc of the Trump era,” Bennem adds.)

Collins won, but just barely.

“I think the indictment helped him,” McMurray says.

Collins felt as if he’d given a middle finger to his critics. “How many people can win with ... felony counts hanging over their head?” he asks. “Well, I did.”

Mary Sue jumps in: “You were a trendsetter.”

Collins may have been back at the Capitol, but he wasn’t back in power. He was stripped of committee assignments and shunned by some fellow members. One of the few who stood by him, Collins says, was New York Republican Elise Stefanik, whom he calls his political “soulmate” in his unpublished memoir.

Collins had weightier problems than palace politics. He was about to get outmaneuvered by federal prosecutors. In his book, Berman wrote that his colleague Damian Williams — now the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — came up with a brilliant strategy to put heat on Collins. They decided to try his son separately.

“Collins had to make a choice: confront the evidence against him in court or bide his time on the sidelines while his son faced the music alone for a crime initiated by his father,” Berman wrote.

An oddity of the case was that Collins hadn’t sold a single share. He was the inside trader who did no trading. He figured he’d have a great chance of an acquittal, but his son was sure to be convicted. Collins decided to cut a deal: He’d plead guilty to one count of securities fraud and one count of lying to the FBI in hopes that his son would get off easy. It worked. His son pleaded guilty and agreed to a $600,000 settlement, which included interest on his illegal trades, with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But he didn’t have to do prison time.

But Collins got smacked: a 26-month federal prison sentence, though he’d have a chance to reduce that with good behavior and other legal reprieves.

Ex-congressman Chris Collins sentenced to prison

Nailing a member of Congress is one of the more brag-worthy feats for a prosecutor. The Collins guilty plea is one of only two cases specifically named in Williams’s official bio.

“The DOJ leverages your family,” Collins says. “These are very vindictive SOBs. ... Who wouldn’t protect their son? It’s like taking down the animals. Big-game hunters.”

“Yeah,” says Mary Sue.

“People like my son,” Collins adds.

“They were like little rabbits,” Mary Sue says.

“Is that,” Collins says, looking over at Mary Sue, “a good analogy?”

As the pandemic raged, Collins spent 10 months pedaling around Marco on his bicycle or staring numbly at the water, his dock and his 16-foot boat, smoking cigars and solving Sudoku and Kakuro puzzles.

Unable to make a case that medical conditions, including asthma, should allow him to stay out of prison because of increased risk from covid-19, Collins finally entered the federal corrections system in October 2020.

“Everybody made a big ruckus about his arrival,” says Juan Almeida, a flamboyant figure who sold exotic cars and souped-up speedboats favored by drug traffickers during Miami’s 1980s “Cocaine Cowboys” era.

Almeida — who had been in prison for 2½ years on drug trafficking charges that he continues to deny — arranged for the former congressman to move into his seven-person cell, which he’d dubbed the “Power Cubicle.”

“I was kind of a celebrity inmate. I had a certain control and power in the unit. I set him up,” says Almeida, who is featured in the 2018 Showtime documentary “Operation Odessa,” about an attempt by his friend, a Miami strip-club owner nicknamed Tarzan, to sell a Soviet-era nuclear submarine to a Colombian drug cartel.

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Their roomies included a construction-company owner convicted of defrauding hurricane victims whom they’d nicknamed 5-20 — their inside joke that he was 5 feet 20 inches tall. Collins calls them “our circle of friends” in his unpublished memoir. Almeida says he addressed Collins as “Congressman.” The guards hated that, says Almeida, who has remained friends with Collins since they were both released.

Collins found himself chopping onions, slopping lasagna onto cafeteria trays and washing dishes. He was given that assignment, he says, because a kitchen guard was a “political junkie” and wanted to spend time with a former congressman.

Collins had a hefty commissary account and made friends sharing Hershey bars and chips. (“I had good snack,” he says.) Until this interview with The Post, Collins has not spoken at length in public about his prison days.

When he wasn’t toiling in the kitchen, Collins did his favorite thing: make money. He negotiated the nine-figure sale of ZeptoMetrix, a biotechnology firm involved in infectious-disease work, which includes preparing samples of HIV and covid-19 to be used in testing.

At home in Marco, Mary Sue was working on a different deal: talking on the phone with then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows about getting Trump to pardon Collins. (Meadows has his own legal problems now, having been indicted with Trump in a Georgia state case for allegedly conspiring to overturn 2020 presidential election results.)

“You think it was your idea that I communicate with him,” Mary Sue says to her husband one recent afternoon. “I think it was my idea. I said: ‘You know what? I’m going to call him and see what’s going.’”

The Collinses had been good friends with Meadows, a Republican who’d represented North Carolina in the House of Representatives at the same time Collins was the congressman from Western New York. (Meadows did not respond to interview requests.)

“I said: ‘Mark, what should I do? This is terrible,’” says Mary Sue. “‘How long is he going to be in there?’”

When she raised the possibility of a pardon, Mary Sue says Meadows told her that he would put it before the president.

She kept calling.

Eventually, Meadows said that “there’s a possibility this can happen,” Mary Sue recalls.

But he warned her to keep it quiet: “We can’t discuss this with anybody. Don’t go telling your girlfriends,” she says Meadows told her.

He didn’t even want her to tell her husband. Mary Sue feared someone might be listening to their phone calls.

“The unique situation of me and Trump, and me and Mark, and Mary and Mark was key,” Collins says. “It’s not like we were bribing him or anything. Relationships matter.”

A lot,” says Mary Sue.

A lot, says Collins.

Collins left Federal Prison Camp Pensacola on Dec. 22, 2020, having served a total of 71 days.

While he’d been waiting for a pardon, Collins had vowed to himself that he’d buy Mary Sue a fancy car to try to make up for what he’d put her and their family through. She got a supple, $300,000 Bentley GT. He treated himself to an Aston Martin DBX.

On Dec. 31 — nine days after becoming a free man again — he closed his megadeal for ZeptoMetrix. That same day, they went house shopping. On the spot, they decided to buy the waterfront place where they now live. It came with seven signed Dalí prints, a Picasso sketch, a Picasso mixed-media work and what is purported to be an original Matisse sketch (according to records provided to them by the seller) that hangs over the toilet in one of the bathrooms.

Collins calls the property “our little piece of heaven.”

From that place of refuge, Collins — who has mostly gotten out of the mega-dealmaking business — couldn’t sit still. So he invested not long ago in a beauty salon run by the wife of one of his fellow federal inmates.

For a brief time, Collins promoted himself as a business coach on Twitter, but his family told him to knock it off because they didn’t want him attracting attention after his prison release.

He now tools around town in a street-legal golf cart that peaks out at 28 mph. Bouncing around his spacious house, often bored, Collins is still counting — everything: his Beanie Babies and rare coins collections, more than 320 Mickey Mantle baseball cards, which he says gives him a top ranking in a sports memorabilia organization. He also has a top ranking, he says, for his collections of other Yankees cards: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson. He almost never looks at them, he says. It’s the amassing that appeals.

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In a safe, he keeps the Ithaca 1911 pistol his dad brought back after serving in Patton’s army during World War II and a .380 Walther PPK. Another more modern handgun, a Smith & Wesson .380, is stashed in a more accessible spot in the house. A friend safeguarded them for Collins while he was in prison. Thanks to Trump’s pardon, he got them all back.

He’s also counting votes, imagining how he could go back to Congress in a cakewalk should Byron Donalds (the Republican member of the House representing the region where Collins now lives in Florida) run for another office — say governor, or even as Trump’s running mate, as has already been speculated.

“I didn’t go out on my own terms,” Collins says. “I was forced out. It’s my way to say they didn’t win.”

It’s eminently doable, says Liz Stephenson, a neighbor on Marco Island’s Hideaway Beach who is plugged in to local politics. That little thing about the conviction? No prob in Southwest Florida, she says.

“We have a lot of criminals and nuts down here,” Stephenson says one night over dinner at the Hideaway country club as the piano player runs through “The Winner Takes It All.”

Collins has taken steps to start building a base of support, including joining the Collier County Republican Executive Committee and making the scene at Trumpy events. He’s had business cards printed. The top line proclaims, “First Member of Congress to Endorse Donald J. Trump for President 2/24/16.” He spoke at a Trump boat rally last summer. There, he hung out a bit with Christopher Worrell, a Proud Boy who’d earlier been convicted of his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. (Worrell later would become a fugitive for about a month after not showing up for a sentencing hearing. He was captured in late September.)

“I got to know him,” Collins says. “Nice guy.”

Collins says he believes Trump did not play a “direct role” in spurring the Jan. 6 assault to block certification of the 2020 election and doesn’t think the former president will be convicted in that federal case or any other case.

But he departs from Trump on the former president’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Collins says he doesn’t think fake voters or manipulated vote counts gave Joe Biden a victory — a claim repeated ad nauseam by Trump. Instead, Collins blames the mainstream media for Trump’s loss because of the copious reporting of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf and the scant coverage of business deals with foreign firms involving Biden’s son Hunter. Collins and Trump talk from time to time, he says. The calls always come in as “Unknown.”

On the way to lunch one afternoon, Collins’s phone rings. Mary Sue, at the wheel of her Bentley, says, “He always answers his phone.”

The phone’s display says, “Unknown caller.”

“Maybe,” Collins says, “it’s you-know-who.”