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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Another Legislator Who Is Selling His Influence



Longtime Baltimore legislator Oaks charged with federal wire fraud




State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a longtime Baltimore state legislator, was charged in


 U.S. District Court Friday with accepting cash payments in exchange for using
 his position to influence a development project.
The 70-year-old Democrat from Southwest Baltimore turned himself in and
pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon to one count of wire fraud. The allegations
 stem from an FBI investigation conducted while he was in the House of 
Delegates. Federal prosecutors wrote in court documents that Oaks used
his legislative letterhead to misrepresent the status of state funding for a
project in exchange for money.
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If convicted, Oaks faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, federal
 prosecutors said. He appeared in court Friday in handcuffs, but was
eventually released on his own recognizance.
Oaks, whose political base is Edmondson Village, was chosen in January by the Democratic State Central Committee to fill the 41st District Senate seat left vacant when Lisa A. Gladden resigned for health reasons. Oaks served 28 years in the
 House of Delegates; his tenure was interrupted for five years starting in 1989
after he was convicted of stealing from his campaign fund.




Since his return to the House in 1995, Oaks has not held a leadership position.
 But he has been a distinctive presence in his trademark kufi cap.
According to a complaint filed in federal court, an unidentified person who was
the subject of a different FBI investigation and cooperating with authorities
 introduced Oaks to an FBI source, who portrayed himself as an out-of-town
businessman interested in obtaining contracts in Baltimore through a minority-
owned business.



Oaks met the source at Ruth's
 Chris Steakhouse in Pikesville
in September 2015, authorities
 say. During the ensuing months,
 they discussed a U.S.
 Department of Housing and
 Urban Development project,
 with Oaks showing the source
 potential sites in the city.
"I'mma do everything within
 my power and my authority to
 lead you right into the, to the place where you can do well," Oaks was recorded
saying, according to the complaint.



In April 2016, the FBI says the source asked Oaks how much he wanted to be compensated. Oaks put a Tootsie Pop in his mouth and, when asked if $5,000
 was enough, "shook his head from side to side and then made an upward
motion with his thumb," the complaint says.



Oaks sent two letters to HUD falsely indicating that he secured matching
 funds from the state for the development project, and he received cash
payments from the FBI source, according to the federal complaint. He also
 falsely stated he was sponsoring legislation that would secure state funding,
authorities say.
Oaks allegedly filed a $250,000 bond bill for the project on a site outside his
 legislative district on a large vacant lot on Druid Park Lake Drive, and was
 paid $5,000 by the source in a hotel room.
In all, federal authorities said Oaks received $15,300 in payments for his
 assistance on the project, with each payment supplied by the FBI and the
 transactions recorded by investigators.
Oaks declined to comment on the case before and after his court hearing.
 Former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms was assigned to his
case as a court-appointed lawyer. Oaks said in court that he did not have
 enough money to hire an attorney.
Oaks had served two terms in the House of Delegates when in 1989 he
 was convicted of stealing more than $10,000 from his re-election fund.
He was also convicted of perjury and misconduct in office. He was given a
 five-year suspended sentence and ordered to perform 500 hours of
community service.
Oaks won back his seat in 1994 and has served ever since. State legislators,
 whose jobs are considered part-time, are paid $48,622 annually.
Oaks is known for an irreverent approach to his job. When he took the
oath of office as a senator, he did so by swearing on a smart phone he
 used to call up a biblical passage. His official biography shows that
despite his seniority, he has not chaired any General Assembly
committee or subcommittee.
Fellow lawmakers expressed support for Oaks, but also shock.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called Oaks a "personal
 friend of mine."
"I stand with my friend," he said.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she believes Oaks should be afforded the
 same rights as all Americans accused of a crime. "He's innocent until
proven otherwise," she said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he was disappointed and
 shocked to learn of the charges against Oaks. In a private meeting with
 Oaks, Miller advised he turn himself in.
"He didn't want to be a distraction and he didn't want to bring disrepute
 on the Senate, so he and his staff left" Annapolis, said Miller, a Calvert
County Democrat.
Miller said he wasn't sure if Oaks would come back to the State House for
the final day of the 90-day session on Monday. Miller said he wasn't
worried about the effect of Oaks' absence on legislation that still hangs
 in the balance at the end of the session.
"I think it's more important that he not be here, quite frankly, with these
 charges hanging over his head," Miller said.
As the details of the investigation circulated in the Senate Friday, and
senators read the charges, Miller offered an amendment to an ethics bill
increasing the fines for bribery up to $10,000.
While the change wouldn't apply to a federal case like Oaks', Miller said
 he thought it was important to make a statement about holding public
 officials to a high standard.
"They're the ones that are the ones making the laws and they can't be the
lawbreakers," Miller said. "If they are charged and they are convicted,
they should pay the highest penalty possible."
The Oaks arrest means a General Assembly that started with a stain of
corruption will end the same way when it adjourns Monday. When the
 legislature convened on Jan. 11, Del. Michael Vaughn abruptly resigned
 for what he said were health reasons. He was indicted in March on federal
 corruption charges involving the Prince George's County liquor board.
The day before the session opened, former Prince George's Del. Will Campos
 pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy in the same corruption investigation
 for actions he took while serving on the Prince George's County Council. Also
, Gary Brown, an aide to Pugh, lost his nomination to represent Baltimore
 in the House after he was charged with campaign finance violations.

All of the charged legislators are Democrats. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan
 criticized their actions as being part of a culture of corruption in Annapolis.
In response, the governor proposed a sweeping ethics bill to put lawmakers
 under the supervision of the State Ethics Commission. The Assembly rejected
 that approach on constitutional grounds, but a rewritten version of the
legislation is moving toward final passage. It would still represent the most
 comprehensive revision of state ethics law in more than a decade.
Del. Curt Anderson, the chairman of the Baltimore House delegation, said
that based on his reading of the criminal complaint, the case against Oaks
didn't look especially strong.
"I know it's a cliche to say a person is innocent until proven guilty, but I
 think in this case Oaks has a chance of maintaining his innocence through
a criminal trial," Anderson said.
Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, of
 which Oaks is a member, said Oaks had become a valued member of the panel.
The chairman said Oaks played a major role in the approval of recent
 legislation ensuring Baltimore students returning from after-school
activities could ride free on Maryland Transit Administration buses and
 trains.
"It really breaks my heart that this is happening to him," Middleton
said. "He fought real hard for Baltimore city."
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a veteran Baltimore Democrat, said she
 was not familiar with the details of the charges against her colleague.
"I'm devastated," she said. "I'll be praying for him and wishing him well."
Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox, Michael Dresser and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.