Feds: Indicted Baltimore state senator confessed to taking cash payments

Federal prosecutors revealed in new court documents that indicted state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks confessed to taking cash payments in exchange for official business before becoming an FBI cooperator and upending another bribery investigation.

The allegations come as Oaks prepares to begin his 30th legislative session in the General Assembly, which begins Wednesday. While the U.S. attorney’s office says Oaks confessed both to taking cash payments and to interfering with an investigation, he has pleaded not guilty and has a trial scheduled for mid-April, right after the legislative session concludes.

Neither Oaks nor his defense attorney could be reached for comment Friday evening.

Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, is accused of taking $15,300 in cash from someone he thought was a “wealthy Texas businessman” but who was working for the FBI, prosecutors said in the new filing. After agreeing to cooperate with investigators, Oaks recorded himself accepting a $2,600 cash payment from an FBI target under a table at an Annapolis restaurant in March 2017 and told the target he would talk to legislators about a bill favorable to the bail-bond industry, federal prosecutors wrote.

But in subsequent encounters, at a St. Patrick’s Day party at an Annapolis bar and separately before a caucus meeting, Oaks told the FBI target: “I’m going to ask you for something. Just say no,” according to court documents.

The person who gave the $2,600 to Oaks, identified in court papers only as “Person #1,” was confronted by the FBI, and prosecutors say he admitted paying Oaks and another undisclosed elected official thousands of dollars over the years. The person paid for parties hosted by Oaks, as well as round-trip flights and hotel rooms in Las Vegas, according to documents.

Oaks was convicted in 1989 of stealing thousands of dollars out of his campaign account while serving in the House of Delegates. He regained his seat in 1994 and was appointed to the state Senate last year to replace a legislator who stepped down because of ill health. His salary as a state senator is $50,330 a year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a fellow Democrat, asked earlier this week whether Oaks should remain in his chamber, said it would be “unfair” for the legislature to vote to remove Oaks before he has his day in court.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said flatly that Oaks should resign. “No question he should be removed from office,” Hogan said Friday.

The person targeted by the FBI using Oaks told authorities that he needed the senator to support legislation favorable to the bail-bond industry, according to court documents. The documents say the person had ownership interests in a bail bond business as well as a company that provided home health care services.

The role of cash bail in pretrial release was one of the most heavily debated and aggressively lobbied issues of the 2017 session.

After a Court of Appeals ruling that limited the role of cash bail in pretrial release decisions, members of the bail-bond industry mounted a lobbying campaign to persuade the General Assembly to block or at least weaken the decision, which they believed threatened their business.

According to the federal filing, Oaks agreed at one point to speak with Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore House delegation, at Person #1’s request. Anderson initially co-sponsoring a bill favored by the industry, but switched sides and became a leading opponent.

The court papers mention nothing about what Oaks and Anderson might have discussed.

Anderson said it’s likely that at some point he talked with Oaks, as he did with most members of the city delegation.

“I don’t recall him trying to persuade me one way or the other,” Anderson said.

Federal prosecutors previously said they had been investigating Oaks since 2014, “based on historical reporting that Oaks was associated with individuals who were involved in illegal activities, and that Oaks had inappropriately accepted money and other things of value from businesspersons and lobbyists in his capacity as a state delegate.”

FBI agents had the purported Texas businessman meet multiple times with Oaks, asking him for help with a development project outside Oaks’ district, court documents say. Authorities said Oaks accepted $15,300 in cash payments and filed paperwork on his official letterhead.

In January 2017, Oaks visited a downtown Baltimore hotel room for what he thought was a meeting with the businessman, known to him as “Mike Henley.” Instead, Oaks was met by FBI agents who showed him recorded encounters of him taking cash payments.

“After watching the videos, Oaks stated that he was ‘in a predicament’ and that he wanted to cooperate with the FBI,” federal prosecutors wrote.

Oaks “told the agents about his contacts and activities with a variety of individuals,” including the unidentified person pushing bail-bond legislation, according to the documents.

“Oaks told the agents that he believed Person #1 would be willing to make corrupt payments to him and other politicians in order to advance Person #1’s business interests,” the prosecutors wrote.

After that meeting, authorities said, Oaks agreed to cooperate and record all of his interactions with the person, and at one point accepted the $2,600 payment under a table at an Annapolis restaurant.

But Oaks tipped off the person at the St. Patrick’s Day party, which prosecutors said rendered their investigation “no longer viable.”

The FBI confronted the person, who told them he had given Oaks and at least one other elected official “thousands of dollars in cash over a number of years,” according to court documents.

“Person #1 stated that he could call on Oaks when he needed help and that due to Oaks’ official position, Oaks could give Person #1 access to other important elected officials.”

The bail industry scored a victory in the Maryland Senate, which passed a bill it endorsed. But that legislation ran into heavy opposition in the House of Delegates, where it died.

Oaks was indicted in April 2017 on wire fraud charges, and was charged in the fall with obstruction of justice for tipping off the FBI target. The federal prosecutors’ new details about the case were revealed in a motion opposing Oaks’ attorneys request that the bribery and obstruction charges be tried separately.

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Erin Cox contributed to this article

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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